A Lockheed P-3 Orion of the Spanish Air Force set a new Spanish record on 22 December 2015. Of being airborne 16 hours in a row, beating the old achievement of 1991 of 13 hours and 50 minutes non-stop in the air.
The aircraft and crew of 221 Squadron (221 Esc.) took of from Morón Airbase near Seville at 10:00 local time for its patrol duty over the Mediterranean in support of the ongoing NATO maritime operations there.
Operation Active Endeavour
Launched after the September 11, 2011, attacks in New York and Washington this Operation Active Endeavour is there to “monitor shipping to help deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist activity”. Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey contribute directly to the operation, while other NATO and partner nations sometimes offer support and/or vessels/aircraft.
After this operational flight during daytime the Orion continued into a night training mission while still airborne, but kept sharing gathered data to the NATO mission as well. It landed again at Morón.
Maritime patrol aircraft
Although the long lasting mission is a novelty for the Spanish Air Force, the P-3 is actually designed to stay airborne for up to 16 hours, according to data provided by manufacturer Lockheed Martin. As a maritime patrol aircraft its combat radius is normally 1,346 nautical miles (2,490 km) and it can remain on station at low-level (1,500 feet) for three hours if on a submarine hunt. A total of 757 Orions were built between 1961 and 1990, of which 107 by Kawasaki in Japan. Many still serving the world’s air arms.
Royal Norwegian Air Force Orions
Spain has two P-3A and four P-3Bs which are being upgraded to the new P-3M standard. A fifth P-3B is used for its spare parts. All P-3Bs are ex-Royal Norwegian Air Force Orions, purchased in 1989. The Norwegians have kept four P-3Cs and two P-3N on strength, all at Andøya Air Station in the north.
In a strange turn of events the ditch of a Spanish Air Force Aérospatiale (now Airbus Helicopters) AS332 Super Puma of the Moroccan coast has turned into a kidnap story, as Madrid fears the three crew members have been picked up and held hostage by pirates.
On Thursday the helicopter of 802 Squadron sent out a distress signal about 280 nautical miles south from its Gando base on the Canary Islands and 40 nautical miles southwest of Dakhla. It was on its way back from Dakar in Senegal. After making a fuel stop in Nouadhibou in Mauritania the chopper continued its flight home, when the crew apparently needed to ditch the aircraft into the sea.
A rescue helicopter spotted a perfectly okay life raft, but at that time were not able to determine if any crew members were inside. The latest theory is that a fishing boat manned by pirates have picked the Spanish military men up, while some other sources still think it is very much possible that the crew members did die inside their chopper when it hit the water.
Meanwhile Spanish and Moroccan forces keep on searching for the helicopter’s wreckage and crew’s whereabouts. Pirates are known to operate off the West African coast. The Spanish Air Force keeps at least one EF-18 fighter jet on stand-by.
In August, the first air-to-air refueling fights between Spanish Air Force Eurofighters and United States Marine Corps (USMC) KC-130J Hercules aircraft took place in Spain.
The Eurofighters were from Esc 111 (squadron), part of Ala 11 (11th Wing) based at Morón Air Base in Southern Spain. The ops with the tanker were part getting to the squadron’s evaluation of the operational capabilities in October. The USMC Hercules tankers are already at Morón as part of the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa.
The Spanish Air Force is planning more tanker meetings with other units and aircraft, to increase the interoperability of its and allied armies.
Large scale military flying exercise Frisian Flag 2015 is currently in full swing at Leeuwarden airbase in the Netherlands and Airheadsfly.com went access all areas on Tuesday 14 April. Close to 60 fighter aircraft from six different nations take part in Frisian Flag, which coincides with the European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training 2015 (EART 2015) at Eindhoven airbase, also in Netherlands.
During Frisian Flag, military jets fly in complex scenarios twice a day. The aim is to broaden the experience of fighter pilots in developing, planning and executing offensive and defensive tactics. Involved in the current Frisian Flag are F-16s from the Dutch and Polish air forces, F-18 Hornets from both Finland and Spain, Eurofighter Typhoons from Germany, plus US Air National Guard F-15 Eagles. Lots more about those Eagles is here.
Robust Frisian Flag was first held following joint allied operations over the Balkan in the early nineties. “We train crews in missions against robust airborne and ground threats, including Roland and German SA-6 ground-to-air defence systems, inflatable targets and smokey SAMs, which simulate missiles being launched at aircraft. It provides the best training you can get,” says Dutch F-16 pilot Remco, a pilot of Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) 322 TACTES Squadron with 1,000 hours on the F-16 under his belt. Since 323 Squadron left for the US to learn to fly the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II late last year, 322 Squadron has taken over the responsibility for organizing Frisian Flag.
Leadership Remco was mission commander on the first missions of this year’s exercise. “Frisian Flag is all about leadership and it challenges you. You have to know the capabilities of each participating asset and deploy them as best as you can. Planning of each mission takes about six hours, and we only finish after landing during a mass debrief. Those debriefs get quite heated at times about which tactics worked and which didn’t. But the proof is always there on the screens. That’s lessons learned in the end.”
Frisian Flag has been a familiar name among European air combat exercises for years and past editions has drew countless air crews to Leeuwarden. The airbase staff puts a lot of effort in explaining the necessity of Frisian Flag to the population of Leeuwarden. The airbase is located close to the town and noise complaints are a fact of life, with roughly 40 aircraft taking off and landing twice every day for two weeks.
The real playground for Frisian Flag is however not Leeuwarden, but a 180nm by 322nm reserved airspace over the North Sea which extends towards Northern Germany in the East. Flying time to the area from Leeuwarden is just three minutes. However, the use of tanker aircraft makes for more efficient missions. Frisian Flag is therefore combined with European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training 2015 (EART 2015), run by European Air Transport Command (EATC) at Eindhoven airbase. Tanker aircraft supporting the Frisian Flag participants are a Dutch KDC-10, French KC-135 Stratotanker, German A310 MRTT and Italian KC-767 tanker aircraft. More on EART 2015 next week here at Airheadsfly.com.
Frisian Flag, along with similar exercises such as Red Flag and Maple Flag, serves as a constant platform for exchanging experience and ideas. The arrival of the F-35 at Leeuwarden in 2019 – and the new tactics involved with the new 5th generation fighter – means Frisian Flag will see changes in the future. “We are working on that,” says Remco. Current experiences over Iraq and earlier scenarios over Afghanistan and Libya are being incorporated into the exercise.
Both Frisian Flag and EART run until 24 April. The Air National Guard F-15s will stay at Leeuwarden for an extra week and will eventually head to Graf Ignatievo Airbase in Bulgaria as part of US operation Atlantic Resolve.
Never mind the devastating reports we have seen on the operational availability of the Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoon aircraft in Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force service. Europe’s multi-role jet fighter has a little success story to tell, with the detachment of the Spanish Air Force at Ämari Airbase in Estonia.
Four C.16s – as the Typhoons are called in Ejército del Aire service – from Ala 11 out of Morón provide part of NATO’s air cover for the Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1 January 2015. According to Spanish military sources to the nation’s leading newspaper El País the Eurofighters flew 108 patrols, clocking 200 hours of flight time and only cancelling one pre-planned sortie because of technical problems.
Like with many other NATO countries Spain has contributed to the Baltic Air Policing before, which is costing the Spanish tax payers about 9 million euros for the current engagement in Estonia that lasts until the end of May. In 2006 four Dassault C.14s (Mirage F-1s) from Ala 14 were deployed to Lithuania. The government in Madrid plans to send the next Spanish Air Force Baltic Air Policing rotation in 2016.