Força Aerea Portuegusa (F.A.P.) ordered 12 Agusta Westland EH 101 Merlin helicopters to replacing its Puma helicopter used for SAR mission in 2001. .The selection of the EH101 for the Portuguese Air Force came at the end of a thorough and extensive evaluation and as a result of flight evaluation of the EH101 against the Sikorsky S-92 and the Eurocopter Cougar Mk2+. The comprehensive range of tests carried out by the Portuguese Evaluation Committee demonstrated the unrivalled capability of the EH101, and its ability to carry out the most demanding of SAR requirements. This achievement underlines the superior ability of the EH101 to satisfy the extremely demanding requirements of Combat SAR missions as well as its already well-proven performance in the maritime, transport/Utility and SAR role. The first EH 101 Merlin was delivered in December 2004 and deliveries completed in July 2006 when the last 12th and final EH101 Merlin was delivered to Portugal, week, flying from Vergiate in Italy to Montijo, near Lisbon in Portugal. The FAP ordered 6 EH 101 mainly equipped for SAR mission, two for Fishery Protection (SIFICAP - Sistema de Fiscalizaçao e Controlo das Actividades da Pesca) and four for Combat SAR.
All the Merlin are operated by 751 Squadron at Montijo Air Base, that maintains SAR detch. One helicopter and one crew at Porto Santo airport (Madeira island) and two crew and 3 EH 101 based at Lajes-Terceira air base, Açores Islands. The crews perform 24 Hrs alert daily and rotate from Montijo every 15 days. The first EH 101 Merlin became fully operational, in February 2006 replacing completely the Aerospatiale Puma helicopters in the SAR role at the end of the same year.
With the largest SAR area of responsibility of any European country the long range capabilities of the EH101 provides new levels of SAR capability covering a large area of the Atlantic ocean operating from bases on the mainland, Lajes in the Azores and Madeira. The 12 aircraft have now flown more than 2500 hours and have demonstrated there long range capabilities, while self deploying to the Azores. The EH-101 Merlin is a three-engine helicopter for medium transport, with tricycle semi-retractable landing gear, with two wheels in each unit and a 5 blade main rotor. It has emergency floats, 2 boats for 20 people each, one main and one secondary hook, NITESUN and FLIR.
Based on a common airframe and powered by RTM322 engines, all three variants are equipped with a range of equipment including search and rescue hoist, belly mounted 360 degree Galileo Avionica, APS-717 Search Radar, able to identify and monitor 32 surface targets simultaneously, it can operate in NVG conditions, and is equipped with searchlight for night operations and FLIR system, multi-mission direction finding system, fully integrated communications and navigation system and a range of cabin role equipment. The SAR variant can rescue over 30 survivors and is capable of performing rescues at 450 nm (833 km) from its base and returning when fitted with long range fuel tanks. The SIFICAP (Sistema de Fiscalizaçao e Controlo das Actividades da Pesca) or fishery protection variant is equipped with a cabin mission console for the operation of the 360 degree scan radar and other sensors. The configured Combat SAR Merlin features additional equipment for this demanding role including a full Defensive Aids Suite (DAS), which consists of an electronic self-protection integrated system, including the following sub-systems: a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), a Missile Warning System (MWS) and a counter Measures Dispensing System (CMDS). The C-SAR F.A.P. EH 101 Merlin are also configured for Hovering in Flight Refuelling (HIRF) and Air to Air Refuelling (AAR), and has personnel locator system interrogator and a fully automatic folding system for the main rotor blades and the tail unit.
However due the shortage of the qualified crews, the mission is still on " hold" and Esq 751 estimate to start to train for this new mission for Portuguese AF pilots not before one/two years.
In fact Esq. 751 lost several experienced crews in the past years, that moved to civilian works, and now is working hardly to prepare the 18 fully qualified crews requested. Some new pilot is already in transition directly from the Esq. 552 based at Beja, the main helicopter training unit in Portugal flying Alouette III, and the new pilot moved directly to Montijo to be converted on EH 101. The syllabus training requested that after an academic course in UK, after around 40 training flying hours the new pilot is qualified as co-pilot in the Merlin.
The Esq. 751 pilots are very happy with the Merlin, as it offer exactly the double payload capacity, range, performance and reliability compared the Puma.