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Words by Jeroen van Veenendaal

Copyright : Ralph Blok, Roelof-Jan Gort and Jeroen van Veenendaal

Introduction Of The Course

From 2002 to 2006, the European Air Group (EAG) conducted VOLCANEX Exercises with a heavy focus on Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR). These exercises provided not only valuable training for the participating forces but, also threw up a variety of lessons learned. Through these, it became obvious that Force Integration Training was extremely valuable. As no other training opportunity of this kind was available in Europe, the EAG developed a Combined Joint Combat Search and Rescue Standardization Course on the basis of the previous VOLCANEX exercises and their respective lessons learned.

Later on, the need for this course became more pronounced. However, the naming of it lead to misunderstandings and distracted from its aims. CSAR is just a narrow subset of Personnel Recovery. On the 3rd of July 2013, the EAG Chiefs of Air Staff decided to create a European Personnel Recovery Centre (EPRC). An interim EPRC was initiated and situated at RAF High Wycombe with 8 Staff Officers under the control of the Director of the EAG. The EPRC achieved Initial Operational Capability on the 8th of July 2015 and an inauguration ceremony was held at its final location on Poggio Renatico Air Base in Italy. This is the first time that the EPRC organizes the course by itself. Last year the course was still organized by the EAG and ultimately implemented by the EPRC. The name of the course has also changed in Air Centric Personnel Recovery Operatives Course to provide more clarity.

Introduction Course Director

Course Director Lieutenant Colonel Bart Holewijn

We spoke to the Course Director, Lieutenant Colonel Bart Holewijn. He works at the EPRC since it was founded and his main task is to organize this course. The 2015 course would have still been organized by his predecessor who worked at the EAG, but due to health issues this is his second time as a Course Director. Lt. Col. Holewijn tells us how he ended up with the EPRC: “I started in the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1990 at the 299 squadron, and have flown the Bölkow Bo-105 there for several years.” When the Bölkow was phased out he had to be re-trained on the Alouette III, but due to practical considerations, he went to staff.

Changes In The Course

In comparison to last year, there are a lot of changes on how the course is set up. The goals are the same, but the approach is very different to the years before. Holewijn explains: “The biggest discussion we had last year is: what is this? Is this an exercise, is it a training event, or is it a course?” The EPRC concluded that they had to return to a real course. There had to be clear and explicit learning objectives, and a clear description of how gradually make the course more difficult during the two weeks. “It has to be that on any given day, if we have three task forces, that they all perform the same mission. They have to have the same learning curve.” The course also starts at a lower level to be more accessible, and in order to connect better with the partakers.

Unique In The World

Holewijn points out there is no course like this anywhere. “The Netherlands have the Helicopter Weapon Instructor Course for example, the British have a comparable training, but internationally there is nothing like this, and other countries also have no similar training course.” Different to last year is also the formation of the task forces. For the first three days they consist of the same people. It is easier to communicate they also are able to execute things they have learned.

Course Operations Center

Another important change as opposed to last year is that a Course Operations Center is now set up for the course. “Previously, there were several different departments, all of which were somewhere in the building, all of which had an owner, and they all walked around somewhere.” A Joint PR Center communicated with all of the departments. The colonel gives an example: “When a task force asked to have fifteen minutes extra because they cannot make the boarding time, then the JPRC had to go coordinating with all those players. But they had to be looked up somewhere, because they roamed around somewhere.” In order to prevent that from happening this course, a small scale Air Operations Center, or a Course Operations Center was established on the base. All the key players are present in the room and they don’t leave. “If the question comes to delay departure for fifteen minutes, they can immediately ask if it’s possible.” Communication lines are shorter that way. Information can immediately be communicated that to the other players in the room. “Especially if it becomes clear that we cannot fly for any reason, then you immediately have everyone available. Every player can call his people to make them come back.”

Theory Days

The course starts with two days of theory. The first day focuses on what PR is, but attendants are expected to know a little about that already. In addition, information is provided about local regulations, about what the participants can expect, what the survivors roles will be in this course, and the capacities and capabilities of the various aircraft. The second day is focused on planning. How does the planning process work, how to divide tasks, what steps to go through and how to use various tools.

Mixing Crews

Crews and helicopters of various nations are mixed all the time. At the beginning of the course, when everyone arrives, a cross training takes place, to ensure safety. The purpose of this mixing is to see if attendants interpret the same text in the same way. A difference in interpreting certain things is common, and this kind of training is very useful to get clarification. Holewijn finds that very interesting: “Normally, fighter pilots never talk with extraction forces. Fighter pilots and helicopter pilots talk to each another sometimes, but they don’t cooperate often. In between these groups there’s also an AWACS flying for support. Fighter pilot of course communicate often with AWACS, but helicopter pilots never talk to AWACS, and extraction forces neither. So there are all kinds of players who would normally never actually talk to each other will be forced to work together.” All communication takes place in English. It is also required to talk English in the planning area. Holewijn: ”If someone behind you suddenly starts talking Spanish for example, then you have no idea what he’s talking about, when what they say can be very important for your role in that process.”

Mission Preparation

Before starting a recovery mission, the group divides itself into a number of teams, that are preparing parts of that mission. The Rescue Mission Commander (RMC) is there to keep control over the process. During the planning process there are so-called mission mentors supervising the entire planning process. They advise people and they are also watching the exercise. When everyone is ready planning after a few hours, there is the big briefing. The RMC briefs the overall plan and it should be clear to everyone. If so, the mission will start. But, like Holewijn experienced in the past, that is not always the case. He recalls saying: “I have no idea what you will do, but that cannot be safe, so the mission won’t be carried out like that.” A discussion arose in the group on how to execute things, and preparations of various teams didn’t connect. “You have a conclusion at the end of the discussion, but if you have three, four discussions during a briefing, doe everyone still know exactly what’s really decided?” They had to do the briefing again with all the corrections and additions, and that time it was clear.


After briefing, the task force goes to OPS, where they get the latest info on the weather, the air traffic, and then the package flies in accordance with the route they have planned to arrive at the pickup zone. The task force consists of fixed wing assets, rotary wing, an armed rescort (Rescue Escort), recovery vehicles, and of course the extraction force. All these groups have to plan that mission together. They get a location where someone is located that they have to pick up.

Survivor Roles

At the pickup zone can be all kinds of survivors. It can be a pilot who jumped out of a plane with the ejection seat, it can be an infantryman who has a radio, but has no knowledge of procedures, perhaps speaks poor English, and it can be any citizen who has a mobile phone and has no clue what kind of procedures even exist, and therefore can not apply them, but can only call. For the planning the rescue, that makes a huge difference. A pilot has a survival radio, it is easy to communicate with and data can be exchanged as well, so you can get the exact coordinates of where the pilot is located. If you have a traditional radio, that is already limited. And if the man on the ground can not read a map, he might tell very strange things. And the citizen who can perhaps read a map, but has another problem, you can call him now, but once you get you on the plane that’s not possible anymore.

Opposing Forces

To complicate the scenario, there are of course Opposing Forces (OPFOR) in the area. They focus mainly on the tactics the extraction force uses, but also on the legal part, the Rules Of Engagement (ROE). In these scenarios, extremists are also embedded, who look like civilians but carry a rifle. Holewijn elaborates: “The angry farmer who comes at you waving a stick, is it an extremist or an angry citizen? If it’s an extremist, he falls under a different rule of engagement than a civilian does.” The challenge for the participants is to recognize a threat and act accordingly. Also deployed from the Multinational Aircrew Electronic Warfare Tactics Facility (MAEWTF, but referred to as Polygone) is a TRTG (Tactical Radar Threat Generator). It’s a truck with various transmitters that can simulate all kinds of air defence systems. It’s deployed somewhere in the training area, and task forces will pass it on their way, and it will pretend to be an air defence system of any gien type. The task forces are supposed to counteract to avoid being shot. The OPFOR almost always consist of host nation personnel. They know where the pickup zones are, and are previously given very clear boundaries about what they can and cannot do in the exercise. The survivor knows, there is OPFOR walking or driving around somewhere. When there are a few people walking around, they could be hikers, but it can also be OPFOR. That creates a more realistic scenario.

Initial Stages

Italian AMX’s provide the fixed wing escort, and they participate in the planning. In most missions, the AMX’s are the first to come in the vicinity of the survivor, and they are the ones that make initial contact. They also make certain that the person on the ground is who he says he is, by using pre-arranged code words. After that they will ask details about the situation, health of the survivor and what he can see in the area for example. They can also prepare the pickup for the survivor by telling him what to do. The second thing they do is eliminate threats on the ground. Because the helicopters also have weapons on board, targets need to be well divided, in order not to all target the same goal. The helicopters and fighter pilots have to coordinate together.

Gfd Learjets

There is actually always a shortage of fighter aircraft to do the escort role, and a German company, GFD has a contract with the German Air Force. Two Learjets were made available for this course. They both simulate the escort role, emulating the communication as it would happen with fighter aircraft. One of the aircraft has a sensor on board, which can be use like on an A-10, which was one of the aircraft emulated during this course.


The course continues, next year it will be held in Italy. In the future, the course will always take place in June, and the host nation must also provide the fixed wing support. Holewijn clarifies: “That should give us more assurance that we have more fixed wing aircraft. Planning for the course can take place much more in advance, even if there are no exact dates known.” There will be a seven-year cycle, rotating the seven EPRC countries Results And Progress “I’m not completely satisfied” Holewijn reflects on the course. “I think it is not good if you are completely satisfied, so that’s good. The course works better than previous editions, it’s setup is more structured.” On the other hand, he is happy everything happens safely, and all participants are convinced of the importance of that aspect. “Taking it back to a course we have put a step in the right direction. But we are not there yet.”

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