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.
Skies have become slightly more boring in Sweden, after the last Aérospatiale (currently Airbus Helicopters) AS332 Super Puma helicopter of the Swedish Armed Forces made its final landing on 22 October.
The last HKP 10 (Helikopter 10) – as the type was dubbed in Swedish military service – touched down on Linköping-Malmen Airbase, 27 years after the day in March 19888 when the first search-and-rescue variant took to the air at F21 Luleå-Kallax Airbase in the north of the country.
The dozen Super Pumas that Sweden ordered were delivered up till 1995, replace the aging HKP 4 (CH-46 Sea Knight) as SAR chopper. Troop transport and medevac were roles later added. More recently three of the Swedish Armed Forces even served in Afghanistan for a period of two years in the latter role. The last serious operational missions were flown by two machines in August this year, when they supported the big Army Exercise 15 (AÖ15), and last week during Exercise Jämtgubben HKP10 with number 97 took part in a real exercise scenario.
For the number freaks: the choppers together made 71,000 flight hours, using 44.5 million litres of fuel. During the service period three of the 12 helicopters were written off due to accidents. Of the remaining nine machines, six are now stored in Linköping offered for sale. Two other machines will go to museums while the ninth aircraft will be used for technical education.
The role of the HKP10 is now resting on the shoulders of the plagued NHIndustries NH90, named HKP 14 in Swedish Armed Forces service. Of the 18 machines Sweden hopes to have in 2019, ten have now been delivered. Half of the current fleet flies with the Helicopter Squadron at Luleå in the far north, the other half with the chopper unit at Ronneby in the far south.
Since deliveries and operational availability were very problematic the Swedish government ordered 15 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk choppers in 2011, which were quickly delivered and which will stay operational as the country’s defence and political leadership seems to be very happy with their availability.
The Swedish Armed Forces set a major step in decommissioning the aging Aérospatiale HKP 10 (AS332) Super Puma when Ronneby/Kallinge Air Base (F17) stopped operations with the type on 4 December 2014.
The HKP 10s are slowly being replaced by the new NHIndustries NH90, of which nine have been delivered so far. The Försvarets Helikopterflottiljen at Ronneby will also continue operations with the HKP 15s (Agusta 109LUHs), while the field serves mainly as one of the three Main Operating Bases with two dozen of JAS 39C/D Gripen fighter jets.
Luleå/Kallax Air Base (F21) in the far north of Sweden continues to operate about four HKP 10s until also there the final Super Puma will be relieved by the NH90s. Sweden has operated the Aérospatiale medium-lift helicopter in SAR and other roles since 1988.
UPDATED 2 JANUARY 2015 | Once again a catastrophe hit an Asian airliner. Air Asia’s Airbus A320-216 with flight number QZ8501 was officially declared missing on 28 December at 06:24 local time en route from Surabaya to Singapore. On 30 December the sad but expected news came that floating bodies and possible even the contours of the plane were spotted in the Java Sea, about 6 miles (10 km) from the location where all contact with flight QZ8501 was lost. That is about 100 miles (160 km) southwest of the Indonesian city of Pangkalan Bun at Kalimantan.
Radar controllers at both Jakarta’s Sukarno-Hatta IAP and the radar station of Kohanudnas lost contact with the plane at 06:17 on Sunday the 28th at coordinates 03 22’46 S and 108 50’07 E. Very bad weather has been reported in the area, with the pilot asking an alternative route likely to avoid it. The aircraft never reached it’s destination where it was suppose to land at 08:30 local time, nor did its crew send a distress signal.
According to high-ranking Indonesian Naval Aviation commander, Air Asia’s flight QZ8501 is thought to have crashed into Tanjung Pandan waters in Bangka Belitung area, where the water levels are as shallow as 75 to 150 feet (25 to 50 metres). Indonesia’s call during Monday for the US to assist in the search operations was heard. CNN reported just before Midnight London time that the destroyer USS Sampson (DDG-102) – with on board one or two Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawks – is en route to help. A US Navy Boeing P-8I Poseidon is also expected.
Initial reports say that the A320 flight crew contacted Jakarta Air Traffic Control at 06:12 local time and requested an altitude increase from 34,000 to 38,000 feet because of clouds. The plane is also said to have taken a route away from its pre-planned flightpath to evade turbulent weather. The aircraft in question is registered as PK-AXC and had its first flight on 25 September 2008 according to the Airfleets database. The Air Asia plane had taken off from Surabaya at 05:36 local time.
At the time of the disappearance six other planes were in proximity of Flight QZ8501, on somewhat similar routes. Those planes include aircraft from Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air and Emirates, according to reports released by AirNav, the Indonesian national Flight Navigation Service.
There was some debate about the time of disappearance – reports also indicated 07:24, but that seems to be the fault of the difference in time zones between Singapore and Indonesia. After the plane was lost, a search-and-rescue operation was started. But despite great efforts the mission was severely hampered by the weather conditions and darkness, with authorities even pausing the efforts overnight to find the missing plane. The search was resumed at about 06:45 Jakarta time / 07:45 Singapore time on Monday 29 December 2014.
From the air travellers 149 are from Indonesia, three from South Korea, one from Singapore, one from Malaysia and one from the United Kingdom. Six of the crew members are Indonesian, the co-pilot has the French nationality. Air Asia says the crew of A320 flight QZ8501 is seasoned, with Captain Iriyanto having 6,100 flying on Air Asia’s A320. First office Remi Emmanuel Plesel had a total of 2,275 flying hours with Air Asia Indonesia. According to the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU), missing Air Asia Airbus A320’s captain is a former Air Force pilot who used to fly the Northrop F-5 Tiger with 14 Squadron (Skadron Udara 14) based at Madiun/Iswahjudi.
Initial air force reports indicate that Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) was contacted at 07:55 local time (this might be 06:55 depending on the initial mix-up of time zones) to help search for the missing plane. One of the TNI-AU C-130 Hercules from 31 Squadron at from Halim Airbase went airborne on Sunday at 13:10 local time, but a spokesperson quickly called the weather already “rather challenging”. The Herc piloted by Pilot Mayor Pnb Akal Juang flew the Karimata Islands and surrounding areas down to an altitude of 1500 feet, while its crew and 11 pre-selected local journalist from Jakarta based media on board searched in vain. The C-130 returned without finding anything on 18:40 local time.
A spokesperson also said the TNI-AU scrambled a Boeing 737 MPA from Supadio/Pontianak at West Kalimantan, but is was not immediately clear if that was a mistake or if the plane just happened to be there since the 737s are not officially based there. Moreover an Airbus Helicopters NAS-332 Super Puma was ordered to search, likely coming from Skadron Udara 6 based at Bogor/Atang Senjaya Java. On Monday 29 December the Indonesian armed forces sent six aircraft in the air: two C-130s, a B-737-200 maritime surveillance aircraft, a Navy PTDI CN235 Persuaders and two Super Puma helicopters. The Jakarta Post reports that another three TNI-AU C-130s have participated in the search as well, but these might be the Hercs from neighbouring air forces. Bell 412s were also involved in the operations.
Singapore and India
Amongst the other search assets deployed were two Republic of Singapore Air Force C-130H Hercules’s from 122 Squadron based at Paya Lebar Airbase, joined on Monday by at least two RSAF Super Pumas. The Indian Navy put one of its brand new Boeing P-8Is based at Naval Air Station Rajali on stand-by on Sunday.
Royal Malaysian Air Force
At least one Royal Malaysian Air Force Hercules was readied on Sunday, likely from 20 Squadron based at Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah / Subang RMAF in Kuala Lumpur. On Monday 29 December the RMAF fielded a C-130 (likely the only C-130MP), a CN235-220M tactical airlifter and and a Beechcraft 200T Super King Air maritime patrol aircraft.
Royal Australian Air Force
Australia pre-alerted one of its AP-3C Orions on 28 December. The RAAF Orion joined the search on 29 December, taking off from Darwin in the early morning and heading to Indonesia. “The RAAF AP-3C Orion aircraft has a well proven capability in search and rescue and carries maritime search radar coupled with infra-red and electro-optical sensors to support the visual observation capabilities provided by its highly trained crew members,” RAAF Air Chief Marshal Binskin said in an official statement.
What is left for friends and families of the ones on board Air Asia A320 flight QZ8501 is hope that the combined search effort has at least some result and doesn’t end like Malaysia Airlines MH370.
UPDATED 21 OCTOBER 2014 | Swedish naval, land and air forces scrambled on Friday evening 17 October 2014 for a sudden red alert. Unfriendly underwater activity was spotted in the vast Stockholm archipelago. On Tuesday 21 October the operation is still ongoing and might take at least another week. Among the forces deployed are several Agusta A109 (HKP 15) anti-submarine helicopters. Together with other units they search for Russian military activity just a few tens of miles of the centre the Swedish capital.
According to sources within the Swedish defence ministry an object visually spotted in the water triggered the alarm bells. Some sources say a Russian military transmitter in use by Russian special underwater forces was picked up from the water by a Swedish naval unit. During a press conference on Sunday evening 19 October Swedish Read-Admiral Anders Grenstad said that visual observation were made with a moving submersible object as well; on three different moments: Friday in Kanholmsfjärden and Nämndöfjärden and Sunday in the Jungfrufjärden. A fjärd is a bay on the eastern (Swedish) part of Scandinavia, a fjord a bay on the western (Norwegian) part. On Monday 20 October the search moved further south to Danziger Gatt, closer to the ferry harbour of Nynäshamn. The area includes the naval base of Muskö.
Two more sightings of possibly the same underwater object were made on Monday: near Ingarö / Fågelbrolandet and in the area around Nåttarö further south. Air support on Tuesday came from a Swedish Coast Guard (Kustbevakningen) Bombardier Dash 8 Q-300 KBV 501 that was seen overflying the search area. All non-military/non-Coast Guard vessels are ordered to keep at least a 1000 metres (3,280 feet) distance from any military vessel in the area. Armed Swedish marines reportedly search island by island in some areas.
The Swedish Ministry of Defence briefly ordered no-go zone for ships, but also installed a more permanent no-fly zone up to 4,000 feet (1,300 m) covering an area of 40 by 60 km (30 – 50 miles) near Nynäshamn and about 10 by 20 km (8 to 16 miles) near Sandhamn further north. Only police, rescue armed forces aircraft are allowed in those areas, officially to keep the HKP 15 chopper activities in the area safe. The no-fly zone does not have any negative impact on the regular passenger traffic to/from Stockholm-Bromma and Stockholm-Arlanda. Airheadsfly.com has at this time no information if Swedish Air Force JAS 39 Gripen planes are airborne to enforce the no-fly zone if necessary.
Despite the fact that the HKP 15s can deploy hydrophones and can be equipped with torpedos Sweden seem to miss their TV star of the 1980s and 1990s when Boeing-Vertol CH-46 Sea Knights were the primary asset to find enemy subs. It even earned them the nickname “submarine hunter” within the Swedish Armed Forces. But the choppers – serving under designation HKP 4 – were decommissioned in 2009.
Experts believe it could be a submersible boat designed to bring special forces with diving gear on land, like a Triton type of diving boat known to be in use with the Russians. According to information published by defence expert Mikael Holmström of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet – normally very well and reliably informed – the Swedish defence radio intelligence agency FRA observed contact between a Russian transmitter in Kanholmsfjärden, just of the coast of mainland Sweden about 25 miles (30 km) from Stockholm’s city centre, and a military radio (relay) station in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
But during the Sunday evening press conference Rear-Admiral Grenstadt did not give any such information. Despite the fact that several armed units have been dispatched and helicopters have been seen circling overhead the admiral calls the current military operation one of an “intelligence” kind, to see where the “likely foreign underwater activity” took place or is now. The high-ranking officers denies it is a “submarine hunt” and says no distress signals were received. But admiral Grenstad also says it could turn into a submarine hunt, but that would mean “resources like helicopters” – which actually have been seen and photographed by several professional and amateur photographers during the last few days. In short: a rather confusing and contradicting series of statements.
Very reliable source
Swedish Minister of Defence Peter Hultqvist, just on the job for less than two weeks, initially only confirmed that military got reports from “a very reliable source” that one or more man made objects were observed underneath the surface of the waters off the Stockholm coast. Mr. Hultqvist did not say what those objects were or which country might have been behind it, but it is a standard phrasing for a submarine.
Eye-witnesses report seeing several defence helicopters flying over an area, as well as at least a dozen boats and vessels; including the stealth corvette K31 Visby, corvette K11 Stockholm, corvette K24 Sundsvall, mine-counter vessel M76 Ven, mine-counter vessel M74 Kullen, support vessel A264 Trössö, several machine gun armed fast combat boats (Stridsbåt 90) and support/transport vessel HMS Loke. Official sources say about 200 troops and navy crew searched the entire first night, supported by several units on the mainland. Finding a possible underwater object, submarine or other, is difficult in the area of operations as the place is littered with small islands and rock chunks.
During the whole of Saturday and Sunday nothing had been found. Sunday morning the search area was expanded, moved somewhat south and started to focus on the possibility that a small number Russian special forces might be somewhere on the many islands in the Stockholm archipelago. Russia denies any military operation is going on and says that none of its military boats is in trouble.
Mysterious oil tanker
Swedish government officials did confirm they are aware that a large Russian oil tanker with official destination the waters between Norway and Denmark is present just outside territorial waters in the Baltic. What this NS Concord is doing near Sweden since Wednesday is unknown, but one theory is that the vessel has been adapted to support Russian submarine activities, probably small subs. It movements are what strange, as it has been seen on maritime radar moving in irrational north-south patterns and turning its transponder on and off every once in a while. However, owner SCF Novoship sent out a press release on 20 October saying the vessel just waits between 14 and 25 nautical mile from the Swedish territorial waters waiting for its planned docking in the Russian harbour of Primorsk, from where it will transport oil to the United States.
Russian research vessel
Another bit of speculation is what the mission is of the Russian underwater research vessel Professor Logachev that left the port of St. Petersburg and headed into the Baltic Sea. The ship was last seen on public maritime radar being shadowed by the Royal Netherlands Navy frigate F805 Evertsen, of which is known it has a NH90 helicopter on board. According to the Dutch Ministry of Defence nothing extraordinary is happening, while the frigate is returning home together with offshore patrol vessel P841 Zeeland and supply vessel A836 Amsterdam from a port visit to Tallinn in Estonia.
The Swedish Navy just practiced procedures last week in the Baltic Sea, against the small Royal Netherlands Navy group that also included the frigate F803 Tromp and the diesel-driven Dutch submarine S810 Bruinvis. The vessels visited Stockholm in the second weekend of October. Russia even made use of the confusion started in Swedish and Norwegian press that the RNLN Bruinvis was the cause of it all, which was then copy/pasted by loads of media who rushed the news without double-checking what the real whereabouts of the Bruinvis were: the harbour of Tallinn in Estonia.
During the 1980s Swedish forces regularly went sub hunting, believing it were Russian predators on the coast. However, a lot of times it were US Navy subs testing Swedish defences. Lately Sweden is moving closer to NATO and at the same time has to deal with more Russian activity, like the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker “bodycheck” on a Swedish Air Force jet in July.