The Escadron d'hélicoptères 1/67 “Pyrénées” is based at Cazaux Air Base (Base aérienne 120 Cazaux), France and is part of the French Air Force (Armée de l'Air). The squadron operates the Eurocopter EC 725 Caracal, which is a long-range tactical transport helicopter that can carry up to 28 seated troops along with three crew. The helicopter is designed for troop transport, casualty evacuation, and combat search and rescue duties (CSAR), and has a full glass cockpit, two 7.62mm machine guns for self-protection, and has the ability to perform air-to-air refueling from a KC-130. The 1/67th is the only unit whose sole purpose is Personnel Recovery (PR) in France. Since CSAR is a joint mission, they are a joint unit (they have pilots from different armed services: Air Force, Navy, and Army) and the chain of command remains with the French Air Force. At the time they also had two exchange pilots: one USAF HH-60G pilot coming from unit the 66th Rescue Squadron (66 RQS) and one German pilot coming from a UH-1 unit. The unit has about 250 service members and flies both the SA 330 Puma and the EC 725 Caracal.
In 2014, the 1/67th had one of their EC 725 Caracal helicopters at the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport in Flagstaff, Arizona where they were taking part in Angel Thunder 2014. The Caracal is a very capable platform for CSAR missions. According to Lt Col Guillaume VERNET who is the Deputy Commander, 1/67 RQS, Cazaux AFB, France, “This airframe was specifically designed for CSAR. For that reason, we have all the systems that allow us to go pick up an isolated individual deep into the ‘bad guy’s zone’." According to Lt Col VERNET, the aircraft has many types of insertion/extraction devices, a self-protection system with LASER, RADAR, missile in flight warning receiver, two side-mounted, crew-served machine guns, forward looking infra red camera, (FLIR), enhanced redundant navigation system with a full glass cockpit and a moving map display, digital automatic flight control systems that allow the crew to be off the controls during any part of the flight, room in the back for 28 seats, power supply & embedded systems for tactical and medical gears, and most important to us as of today, an air-to-air refueling capability to have a higher endurance and combat radius. Lt Col VERNET discussed the standard crew for the CSAR mission in the Caracal, he said, “This is going to be mission related (Threat, terrain, endurance ...). Basically, we're a crew of 2 pilots, 1 gunner/flight engineer, another gunner and a bunch of PJs. We also can bring medics if need be. Our crew is specially trained for water ops and our gunners are also safety divers.”
Angel Thunder is the largest and most realistic joint service, multinational, interagency CSAR exercise designed to provide training for personnel recovery assets using a variety of scenarios to simulate deployment conditions and contingencies. Personnel recovery forces will train through the full spectrum of personnel recovery capabilities with ground recovery personnel, air assets, Special Forces teams, and federal agents. Angel Thunder 2014 was conducted in May 2014 and executed training scenarios from the Pacific Ocean to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. Angel Thunder provides personnel recovery and combat search and rescue training for combat aircrews, pararescue, intelligence personnel, battle managers and joint search and rescue center personnel. Lt Col VERNET mentioned the objectives for the French Air Force during Angle Thunder 2014, and they were, “We intend to enhance our partnership with our American sister units within the CSAR/PR missions scope. Thanks to a long term exchange program, we have shared our tactics, techniques and procedures for seven years (I was the lucky 1st exchange pilot, for a 3 year tour, deployed twice in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan within the 41st RQS and really had a blast over there...). The US tends to focus more and more on Africa, which was the scenario for Angel Thunder 2015. Our French forces have had boots on the ground in Africa for dozens and dozens of years. It is a win-win partnership. As of right now, we'd like to create opportunities and compare the way we do the job in the terminal area of ops. CSAR/PR is a top level mission that demands extreme expertise from stick shakers, backenders and PJs. Most of the procedures are standardized, to allow us to work as a joint task force down the range. A handful of tactics make the difference when things don't go as planned. The USAF experience is extremely valuable to us for that reason. Eventually, Davis Monthan's playground gives us the opportunity to work with all the PR players in a nutshell (A-10 for escort and C-130J for helicopter air-to-air refueling, ...) and in a challenging environment (Brown out approaches, high temp/density altitude...).” Lt Col VERNET went on to say, “Angel Thunder is the biggest CSAR/PR exercise ever designed worldwide. This is the place to be! We've been invited three times in a row but we never managed to make it due to our deployment schedule. This year, we made things happen to eventually show up. Participation to this exercise is our chief of staff top priority because it matches with all our training requirements: work within specific assets and chains of commands. The USAF motto is ‘train as we fight’. This is also one of the FAF core values. Owning CSAR/PR units is a key strategic advantage for one country. Not a lot of countries worldwide are able to own specific units solely designed for CSAR/PR missions. We're willing to maintain this specific advantage. USAF is the leader when it deals with PR missions. We are proud to be your [USAF] guest!” Training in Arizona has many different advantages that the 1/67th was able to use in their training. Lt Col VERNET said, “Arizona's playground is outstanding with high temperatures and density altitudes, dusty challenging landing zones, and wide searching areas. When you train for a mission, you want your training to be as valuable as possible, with rock solid scenarios. Arizona definitely suits to these requirements. Davis-Monthan AFB also gives us the opportunity to perform helicopter air-to-air refueling on a daily basis, which is one of our objectives too!” But, there have been challenges too, for most of the crews; the biggest challenge has been the language barrier. Lt Col VERNET said, “We're used to speaking English with all our partners. The American accent can be pretty challenging when it is heard over a radio! However, our TTPs are definitely close so we speak the same language. We are predictable to our USAF comrades as they are to us. But we still have to manage coordination issues due to our technical differences.” Also, the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport in Flagstaff, Arizona is over 7,000 ASL and as with most helicopters, the power margin is deeply based upon temperature and density altitude, but the Caracal was the one helicopter that had the best payload during this training. The 1/67th brought their operational chain of command to Angel Thunder 2014, along with their maintenance team and their intel guys, including electronic warfare specialists. They also brought their French PJ team: the Commando parachutiste de l'Air N° 30 (CPA 30). Lt Col VERNET said, “They come everywhere we go, we are stationed 30 minutes apart and work together on a daily basis. We also have our French tactical communication support team and our French Public Affairs/combat camera team.”
The Caracal crews perform many different missions in the French Air Force. Lt Col VERNET said, “The Caracal airframe serves both the French Air Force and the French Army (and secret services FAF pilots). The 1/67th "Pyrénées" has been performing CSAR since the early 90's (Ops Deny Flight), moreover we are a SAR unit since the early 60's. In our mission spectrum, we also have been part of the Special Ops command, providing helicopter support for training and combat purposes down the range. We use the Caracal for Personnel Recovery. Moreover, our expertise in this particular field of missions allows us to provide Combat rescue support everywhere we deploy troops (recently : Afghanistan, Africa ...). We deployed our first Caracal a couple of weeks after it was called fully operational: Indeed, in 2006, we deployed for Non combatant Evacuation in Lebanon (Ops Baliste), then, we deployed it in Afghanistan (2006-2013) in support of ISAF forces in RC-C (Kabul). We did participate to ops EUFOR Tchad (2007-2008, Special Ops Forces). We also deployed it in support of the joint ops in Lybia (Ops Harmattan).”
The lessons they learn during Angel Thunder 2014 are extremely valuable to the Escadron d'hélicoptères 1/67 “Pyrénées,” and they will be updating their publications and training procedures to reflect what they have learned. Lt Col VERNET mentioned some of his favorite things about Angle Thunder, and said, “First and foremost, individual exchanges with our US comrades is a very exciting experience. I loved working with a full PR package as it reminded me of what I've done here for three years.”
It was an honor to be escorted out to the squadron’s Eurocopter EC 725 Caracal, and to be given such an up close look around their amazing aircraft. It was also a pleasure to discuss the squadron’s mission with Lt Col VERNET, we appreciate the time and information that he gave us.