Spottingtrip Spain, Basevisit Arma Aera de la Armada, Rota, Spain - 8th May 2018
In 2017 the Spanish Navy Airwing, the 'Arma Aerea de la Armada', celebrated its 100th Anniversary during a series of ceremonies held at Base Naval Rota in the South of Spain. So this is a nice occasion for us to have a look at the aircraft, helicopters and missions.
The Aviación Naval was created in 1917 by Royal Decree by the monarch Alfonso XIII. Later it was renamed Aeronautica Naval and has undergone many changes over the years until this day when the Flotilla de Aeronaves de la Armada (FLOAN) continues the traditions and history of the embarked flying units of the Spanish Navy. Virtually all the aviation assets are based at Base Naval Rota in the bay of Cadiz. BN Rota consists of two main elements, first the military air base and secondly a naval port and both facilities are used by the Spanish and the United States Navy.
FLOAN currently manages seven flying squadrons, 4 with helicopters, 2 with aircraft and one with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In addition it is responsible for a 2nd Level Maintenance Support organization (Segundo Escalón de Mantenimiento), a Flight Simulator Centre for AV8B and SH60B pilots (that is also used by other operators of these types) and since 2010 the Centro de Supervivencia de la Armada (CESUPAR), a survival centre that trains aircrew, passengers and rescue swimmers in how to escape from a submerged helicopter.
The primary vessel on which the aircraft and helicopters are deployed is the Barco de Proyección Estratégica (or Strategic Projection Ship) 'Juan Carlos I' (L61). This multi-purpose ship was commissioned in September 2010 and was the replacement for the carrier 'Principé de Asturias' that was decommissioned in February 2013 after 25 years of service. In addition to the 'Juan Carlos I' the helicopters are also deployed on the frigates of the Spanish Navy. Currently two types of frigates are in service with the Spanish Navy, the Álvaro de Bazán-class (or F100-class) with 5 in service and the Santa María-class (F81 to F86) with 6 ships in service.
The main interest of this article is to have a close look at the various aircraft and helicopter types in service. During our visit in Rota we were given the opportunity to visit all the Escuadrillas (squadrons), talk to its crews and off course photograph their equipment.
Tercera Escuadrilla (3 Squadron)
Tercera Escuadrilla (3 Squadron) was formed in 1964 when four Agusta-Bell AB204 entered service. Ten years later in 1974, the first replacements for the AB204, the Agusta-Bell AB212, arrived in the squadron. In total fourteen ASW-configurered AB212s entered service focusing on the anti-submarine warfare role. In addition the helicopters were able to perform anti-surface warfare, communications, transport, rescue, MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) and amphibious operations support duties. In recent years and the entry into service of other types 3 Escuadrilla mainly focuses on surface warfare, search and rescue, transport of everything ranging from VIPs to cargo and logistical support. In this role the squadron has been used in various humanitarian operations as well, and this across the globe. Currently the remaining AB212s are undergoing an upgrade program bringing them to AB212+ standard. This upgrade will enable the helicopters to be operated without restrictions in military and civilian airspace, as well as giving them self-protection and defense systems for deployment in multinational missions with a low-medium threat level. It will allow the AB212s to remain in service for at least an additional 15 years.
Cuarta Escadrilla (4 Squadron)
Cuarta Escadrilla (4 Squadron) was also established in 1964 when four light aircraft, two Piper PA24 Comanche and two Piper PA30 Twin Comanche, were purchased. The aircraft were used in the training and target-towing role for many years. In 1988 two Cessna Ce550 Citation II business jets arrived in the squadron. For their missions the aircraft were equipped with pod-mounted FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) equipment. These systems enable the aircraft to track targets during night flight. Soon later a third Citation II arrived in the squadron. In 2006 the fleet was expanded again when a larger Cessna Ce650 Citation VII joined the fleet. The main tasks of the squadron is providing personnel (including VIPs) and cargo transport, calibration of ship systems, CASEVAC (Casualty evacuation) and MEDEVAC and occasionally maritime patrol. The small fleet is used quite intensively, and this was quite clear during our visit as only one Citation II was present at Rota undergoing some maintenance. And for those who wonder what happened with the original Piper aircraft. Well two of them are currently preserved in the Museo do Ar in Madrid-Cuatro Vientos where we saw them last year, unfortunately the whereabouts of the other two are unknown at this moment.
Quinta Escuadrilla (5 Squadron)
In 1966 Quinta Escuadrilla (5 Squadron) was formed at Rota. In late 1965 pilots and engineers already travelled to NAS Key West in the United States to familiarize themselves with their future mount, the Sikorsky SH3D Sea King. A total of 18 units were bought and of note is that the Spanish D-models were the first Sea Kings specifically built for the anti-submarine role, in that period not even the US Navy used the Sea King for this task. Over the years the Spanish Sea Kings received multiple upgrades bringing them to SH3G and later SH3F standard. After the good results of the British Royal Navy, the Spanish Armada also introduced the Thorn/EMI "Search Water" AEW (Airborne Early Warning) radar. In total three Sea Kings were modified to carry this system. With the disappearance of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact the role of Sea King changed again, now picking up the tactical troop transport role. Noteworthy is that the very first Sea King delivered in 1966, HS.9-01/01-501, is still in service and was undergoing maintenance during our visit. But as it appears now the days of the Sea King in Spain are numbered, the expectation is that they will be withdrawn from service from 2020 onwards. The planned replacement for the Sea King is the Airbus Military NH90NFH.
Sexta Escadrilla (6 Squadron)
Another 'golden oldie' is in service with Sexta Escadrilla (6 Squadron), the Hughes 500M. The squadron was formed on May 15, 1972 just prior to the arrival of the first five helicopters. The helicopters arrived without any naval equipment, and the manufacturer Hughes was asked to fit the required equipment: floats and launch equipment for Mk.44 and Mk.46 torpedoes, and were designated Hughes 500M ASW. Three were also equipped with the AN/AQS-81 MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector) equipment and the remaining two were fitted with a winching system. Equipped as such the helicopters were deployed on board Spanish Navy destroyers with a helicopter platform and used in the anti-submarine role. Between January 1974 and July 1977 a further nine helicopters were delivered. After the decommissioning of the destroyers with their capacity and the presence of the Sea King with an ASW role, the Hughes 500Ms were relegated to the flight training role and this until this day. During our visit a group of Spanish Navy Officers were undergoing screening in the hope that they could become future aviators in the Navy Airwing. At the moment six examples of the Hughes 500M are still in service.
Novena Escuadrilla (9 Squadron)
The second fixed-wing type in service with the Spanish Navy is the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) AV8B+ Harrier II in service with Novena Escuadrilla (9 Squadron). Spain was a very early user of the Harrier jump-jet. Already in July 1973 a first batch of McDonnell Douglas AV8A Harrier were acquired from US Marine Corps surplus stocks for service with Octava Escuadrilla (8 Squadron). This first batch consisted of six AV-8A single-seaters and two TAV-8A double-seaters and received the name 'Matador' in Spanish service. This initial batch was followed by a second batch of five AV8As a few years later. In 1987 the Harrier-fleet was increased again with the delivery of 12 McDonnell Douglas AV8B Harrier II aircraft, and a second Harrier squadron, Novena Escuadrilla, was formed. This initial AV8B-batch was followed by a second batch of 8 AV8B+ and one TAV8B two-seater from 1996 onwards. Of note is that this second batch was assembled in Spain by CASA in Seville. In a third phase five of the earlier AV8B were re-manufacturered to AV8B+ standard and these re-entered service from 2003 onwards. The delivery of the second batch meant the end of the AV8A Harriers, and Octava Escuadrilla, and the nine surviving aircraft were sold to Thailand were they remained in service for only a few years. In 1999 only one Thai AV8A was reported to be operational and by 2006 the aircraft were officially withdrawn from service by the Thai Navy.
The Harrier II is the spearhead of the Spanish Navy Air Wing and in operations they work closely together with the United States Marine Corps. At the time of our visit the squadron had one American pilot in its ranks and a Spanish exchange pilot was flying in a US Marine Corps unit. The aircraft are high in demand and this was clear during our visit as a number of aircraft were deployed on the 'Juan Carlos I' somewhere in the Mediterranean. The Harrier II can be armed with up to 6000 kg of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, short and medium range missiles and a 25mm Gatling gun that can be fitted on the 7 weapons stations underneath the wings or fuselage for use on day and night missions, for the night missions the pilots are equipped with night vision goggles. During our visit we saw an aircraft that was equipped with a Northrop-Grumman AN/AAQ-28(V)4 Litening II targeting pod and the GBU-54 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) that was being prepared for a training mission. The AV8B+ Harrier is expected to remain in service for a considerable time and the most likely candidate for its replacement will be the Lockheed-Martin F35B Lightning II.
Décima Escuadrilla (10 Squadron)
The final squadron that we visited in Rota was Décima Escuadrilla (10 Squadron) which is equipped with the Sikorsky SH60 Seahawk. The squadron is currently using two versions of the SH60, the SH60B and the SH60F. The first six Sikorsky SH60B Seahawk LAMPS (Light Airborne Multipurpose System) helicopters were delivered in December 1988 a few months after the creation of the squadron. In 2002 a second batch of 6 helicopters was delivered. The main tasks of the SH60B are Surface and Anti-Submarine Warfare, but it can also be used for Search and Rescue (SAR), Medical Evacuation (Medevac), Vertical Replenishment (VERTREP), Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) and Community Relations (COMREL).
For its missions the SH60B is fitted with a Radar/IFF (Identification Friend or Foe), FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) camera, ESM (Electronic Support Measures) on the electronics side. In addition it can be armed with the Norwegian developed Kongsberg AGM119 Penguin Anti-Ship Missile with a range up to 17-20 nautical miles and the Lockheed-Martin AGM114 Hellfire short-range (4.3 nautical miles) laser guided missile. For self defense the SH60B can be armed with a GAU16 12.7mm machine gun with an effective range of 2000 meters and with a rate of fire of 750-850 shots/minute. For night missions this gun can be fitted with a laser sight. For further protection the helicopter is fitted with manually or automatically operated chaff and flare dispensers.
In recent months the Air Wing saw the delivery of the first 2 Sikorsky SH60F Seahawks. These second hand helicopters come from US Navy surplus stocks. After a few years in storage at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan both helicopters were refurbished in the United States and brought up to Spanish standards before delivery. In the summer of 2017 both helicopters boarded the frigate 'Cristóbal Colón' (F-105) and arrived in Rota on August 10th. The SH60F will mainly be used in the transport and support role. In total six SH60F will be acquired. The allocation to Décima Escuadrilla is only temporarily. The expectation is that once the full complement of six have arrived they will move to Quinta Escuadrilla (5 Squadron), and the Sea King will be retired. How this fits in with the planned acquisition of the NH90 is still unclear. Both variants of the Seahawk can operate from the 'Juan Carlos I' and the fleet of frigates currently used by the Spanish Navy.
Undécima Escuadrilla (11 Squadron)
For completeness sake we also want to mention the last squadron of the Air Wing, Undécima Escuadrilla (11 Squadron). This UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) squadron is no longer based at Rota, but moved to Torregorda in 2016. This squadron is equipped with a number of ScanEagle UAV systems. These were delivered in 2015 and are deployed on board the Spanish Navy ships, but can also be land based. The tasks of the squadron are ISR (Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), Maritime Surveillance, Specials Operations Support, Search and Rescue and various types of support to civil organization like fire fighting and border control.
During our visit we also noted a couple of interesting visitors that were on the platform at Rota. The first was a U.S.Navy Sikorsky MH60S Seahawk from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 (HSC-28) 'Dragon Whales', DET ONE, normally based Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. Det One was detached to Naples, Italy to support the Headquarters of the US Navy 6th Fleet. The helicopter was at Rota to undergo some maintenance hosted by their Spanish colleagues. A second visitor was a AgustaWestland AW139CP from the Italian 'Guardia Costiera' (Coast Guard). The helicopter was deployed to Rota as part of the Frontex efforts to guard the Mediterranean to stop the influx from asylum seekers that try to reach Europe coming from North Africa.
The Arma Aerea de la Armada is a small but potent air arm that had to face many challenges over the years, mainly caused by the ever shrinking budgets, unfortunately a problem that many forces are facing these days. The Spanish Navy Air Wing however is looking positively to the future. Investments continue to replace the fleet with more modern types. Their operations are conducted on a global scale and in close collaboration with foreign navies, but also with other Spanish armed forces. In early March 2018 the 'Juan Carlos I' was deployed on a five month voyage. It carried four Harriers, two Seahawks and two Sea Kings. In addition to these navy aircraft the ship also carried three Boeing-Vertol CH47D Chinook and two Europeter AS532UL Cougar helicopters from FAMET (Fuerzas Aeromóviles del Ejército de Tierra, the Spanish Army Air Corps), these will leave the ship for a longer deployment in Northern Iraq on a peacekeeping mission. During the voyage the navy will conduct exercises together with the US Navy and the Indian Navy to name a few.
The Low Approach Aviation Photography team wants to thank ORPFLOTA for the permission for our visit, LCDR Peréz Castellano for arranging all the logistics and for being our guide during our visit and finally all the members of the Air Wing that made time available to answer our questions and to show us around their aircraft. Muchas Gracias !
Text : Laurent Heyligen
Photography : Laurent Heyligen, Dirk Geuns, Andy Patzelt, Levie Meykens