'Search & Rescue'
SAR throughout OS21 was provided by 802 Escuadron, which is home-based at Gando. Their CASA-Nurtanio CN235-100MPA is known in Spanish service as the VIGMA or 'Delta 4'. The CN235 originally served the Spanish Air Force as a medium-range transport aircraft, but following arrival of the larger CASA C295, →
'COMBAT OVER THE CANARIES'
Ocean Sky is the largest air combat exercise in Europe, with 426 aircraft sorties scheduled for its duration. Overseen MACOM, which is based in Madrid at Torrejón de Ardoz air base, it oversees the preparation of the air combat units, aerospace surveillance and control units which participate in the exercise, conducting the advanced air-to-air training in the air space around the Canary Island archipelago. OS21 missions were comprised of large-scale DCA (Dissimilar Air Combat), OCA (Offensive Counter-Air), Fighter Sweep (COMAO, HVAA Attack) and Escort (Close Escort and Detached Escort).
6 x F/A-18A+ Ala.46
7 x EF2000 Ala.11
8 x EF-18M Ala.12
7 x EF2000 Ala.14
8 x EF-18M Ala.15
4 x F-16C/D 343 Mira
1 x E-3C NATO
1 x CN235 802 Esc
3 x H215 802 Esc
1 x A400M Ala.31
1 x A330 31 EARTS
1 x A300 NATO MMF
A team of 13 European Air Transport Command (EATC) experts left Eindhoven air base, Netherlands, on 14 October heading to Lanzarote for final coordination with their Spanish counterparts and to prepare a welcome to the participants and their tankers for EART 2021. European Air Transport Command took lead of the exercise at Lanzarote Air Base, which was organised in combination with Ocean Sky – with Colonel Salvatore Melillo from the Italian Air Force, and one of EATC’s most experienced air-to-air refuelling (AAR) experts, installed as the EART Director.
The NATO MMF Airbus A330-MRTT participated in EART for the first time, seen in the two images above working in conjunction with Ejercito del Aire EF2000 Typhoons and EF-18M Hornets. The A330-MRTT departed its Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Koln to Lanzarote on 15 October. A total of 32 MMU personnel participated in the exercise, including pilots, air-to-air refuelling operators, cabin attendants and maintenance personnel - the crew using the deployment to continue their training, taking advantage of the various missions that the unit will perform during the exercise.
We are unsure why, but there are no plans to hold Ocean Sky in 2022, with 2023 penciled - and assume that EART will be conducted elsewhere in 2022, maybe back in Eindhoven? In any case, EART will most certainly see increased participation in the future, with Italy and Germany the likely additions (both were due to attend EART 2021 but dropped out at the last minute). In the past the Royal Air Force and US Air Force have attended and it's quite possible that other countries may want to get involved, particularly with many updating their fleets of A2A refuellers and/or integrating AAR aircraft for the first time. Whatever the situation, the future for AAR is bright.
European Air Refueling Training -
Originally known as DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training), the first such exercise was held in 2004, and involved just Spanish Air Force units. However, over the years DACT saw participation from the Spanish Navy, Belgian Air Force, French Air Force, German Air Force, United States Air Force, and the NATO AEW&CF, with the exercise being re-designated Ocean Sky in 2019. With the involvement of foreign nations operating aircraft that are not in the Spanish inventory, it means that dissimilar air combat training can be conducted with a variety of fighter types from the NATO inventory.
Major General Juan Pablo Sanchez de Lara (above) took charge of MACAN in June 2021 and has flown in the Northrop F.5, Mirage F.1 and CASA 101during his career, totaling over 3,500 flight hours as a pilot, flight instructor and test pilot.
Approximately 700 personnel participated in OS21, with 40 fighter aircraft and 6 support aircraft. Missions consisted of three periods of visual combat (1v1) and nine main missions, with up to 30 fighters involved. Missions also involved defence of a no-fly zone, downed personnel recovery, defence of air and control of the air (Defensive Counter-Air), defence of High Value Airborne Assets (HVAA) such as AWACS. The fighter aircraft at OS21 saw constant action each day, with two waves each day – the morning one generally commencing at approximately 10.30am, and the second wave in the afternoon commencing from around 16.30 – with the last jets returning just before sunset at around 19-19.30. The objectives of the exercise are to train Spanish Air Force units in the defence of national airspace, air Control, air
The twice daily waves of fighters saw all participants involved, with no set 'red' and 'blue' forces - units interchanging between different roles so as to provide them with a wide-ranging set of scenarios and mission types
Participation in EART was one of the last steps for the MMF fleet in achieving Initial Operational Capability (IOC).
The MMU A330-MRTT was joined by a French Air Force (Armée de l'Air et de l'Espace) Airbus A330-MRTT Phénix from 31 Escadre Aérienne de Ravitaillement et de Transport Stratégiques (31 EARTS), at Istres (Base Aérienne 125).
Ocean Sky is part of the advanced training for Spanish Air Force fighter pilots and air combat controllers, focusing specifically on advanced training in air-to-air missions in demanding scenarios appropriate to the current geostrategic position. Air defence of the Canary Islands, like all other Spanish territory, is the responsibility of NATO – with Mando Aereo de Combat (MACOM/Air Combat Air Command) deploying Spain’s mainland-based air defence units to Gando for the duration of the exercise.
The EART exercise has historically been involved with a fighter exercise, previously running in conjunction with the Frisian Flag exercise over northern Europe. The Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF) provides strategic transport, air-to-air refuelling and medical evacuation capabilities to its six participating nations (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Norway). The aircraft are owned by NATO and managed by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) with the support of the Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR). The Multinational Multi-role Tanker Transport Unit operates the A330 fleet from Eindhoven, Netherlands and from Koln-Bonn, Germany.
Incorporating EART into Ocean Sky provided Spain with the opportunity to integrate an air-to-air refuelling exercise into their annual fighter exercise, expanding their training capabilities considerably. EART has seen the introduction of modern types such as the A300 and A400 since it was last held in Eindhoven, giving Spain the chance to integrate their A400s into EART. Without doubt, holding EART in the Canary Islands has also given NATO the availability to operate in a far more relaxed environment than was previously experienced when operating from Eindhoven - better weather and less crowded air being just two of the benefits.
A French Air Force (Armée de l'Air et de l'Espace) Airbus A330-MRTT Phénix from 31 Escadre Aérienne de Ravitaillement et de Transport Stratégiques (31 EARTS) is seen during EART 2021
increased interoperability between the different participating units, as well as evaluating and improving the tactics, techniques and procedures used in the various types of mission. Each day saw two waves of aircraft, one in the morning and the second late afternoon. The final Phase IV element saw the ‘Redeployment’ of units on Friday 29 October.
A F/A-18A+ Hornet from the Gando based Ala.46 is captured from a Spanish Air Force Airbus A400M as it banks away over the Atlantic during the combined Ocean Sky / EART exercises
'OS21 in Detail'
Ocean Sky 2021 was carried out in four phases:
The first phase of 'Generation and deployment of forces', took place on 15th October - with the aim of carrying out all personnel and force preparation tasks, as well as the deployment of the participating units to Gando.
Second - was a theoretical phase, which took place over the weekend of 16-17 October and included a series of 'force integration conferences' aimed at understanding the aircraft participating in the exercise - Flight Safety, Combat tactics, etc., in order to complement flight training.
Next was a practical phase with DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) type missions, which took place between 18-28 October, with a wide variety of scenarios and with a large number aircraft, allowing
Mid-morning and the protagonists head out for their first mission of the day on 20 October. This involved DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) type missions, with a wide variety of scenarios large numbers of aircraft, allowing increased interoperability between the different participating units. Each day saw two waves of aircraft, one in the morning and the second late afternoon.
Generally Boeing E-3A Sentry would be the first aircraft out and the last to return. However the exercise had to run for a few days without its involvement as it had a technical problem on the 19th October and did not return to duty until 22nd.
The NATO operated Boeing E-3A has a standard crew of 16, which is made up of the Aircraft Commander, First Officer, Navigator and Flight Engineer on the flight deck; and the
Moving on we discussed the possibility of bringing 5th generation aircraft into play at some point in the future; “Most definitely yes”, he said. “We would love to have 5th generation aircraft involved and with more and more NATO nations beginning to operate the F-35 it most probably just a matter of time. We have already seen F-35s involved at TLP (Tactical Leadership Program) and so we have the capability to involve these types of aircraft in the future”.
This year saw Ocean Sky combine with the EART (European Air Refuelling Training) exercise for the first time, with the air-to-air refuelling aircraft operating from the Lanzarote. Three tankers - a French Airbus A330-MRTT, Spanish Airbus A400M, and an A330-MRTT from the Multi-national MRTT Unit (MMU) participating.
During OS21 and EART 21 we had the opportunity to fly with the Ejercito del Aire Airbus A400M (T.23-08/31-28) during an air-to-air refuelling mission. Departing Gando air base as 'Dumbo 30' we spent just over three hours in the air during the morning missions, refuelling Spanish Air Force Hornets from Ala.46 and Eurofighter Typhoons from Ala.14. Having completed the AAR we then had the opportunity to photograph some of the fighter aircraft from the A400s ramp. Her are just a few of the images we captured during the mission over the Atlantic -
Mission Crew, that is made up of the Tactical Director, Surveillance Controller, three Surveillance Operators and a Passive Controller; whilst the Weapons Team consists of the Fighter Allocator and two Weapons Controllers; and finally the Airborne Technicians, that consists of a Communications Technician, a Radar Technician and a Systems Technician. The E-3A normally operates at an altitude of 30,000ft, enabling a single AWACS to monitor airspace within a 250 mile (400km) radius of the aircraft. With its digital data-link system it can provide both ground and sea-based commanders with 'real time' information on high and low-level aircraft threats using its multi-mode Doppler radar.
The Hornets operated by 462 Escuadron are different to those operated by Ala.12 and Ala.15 in that they are all ex-US Navy/US Marine Corps jets, which have not benefited from the Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) programme undertaken by the other Ejercito del Aire Hornets.
In an exclusive interview during Ocean Sky, Major General Juan Pablo Sanchez de Lara, Head of Mando Aéreo de Canarias (MACAN - Canary Islands Air Command) told us; “The area around the islands is ideal for us to conduct this exercise. We have large amounts of air space available, particularly to the south, where there is little in the way of civilian air traffic, which predominantly comes from the north – and of course we also have the weather.”
Asked about the possibility of increased overseas participation he told us; “This exercise is primarily a Spanish Air Force one, and so there are no plans to increase overseas participation in the future. Although we have a lot of available air space to operate in, we are restricted by the amount of ramp space we have. With all the Spanish fighter units here, we do not have a lot available for other participants. We send out invitations every year to a number of partners and then we discuss what they can bring and what they can offer us. Of course, it is ideal that we can provide dissimilar air combat opportunities by having aircraft that we do not operate such as the F-15 or F-16”. →
The Hellenic Air Force boys from 343 Mira were obviously very happy to be here and gave us a little respect as they taxied past us for the first time
This is the first time Spain has participated in the EART exercise, with one of its Airbus A400M tanker/transports from Ala.31, training a variety of scenarios with multi-national counterparts, providing the opportunity to test the integration of the A400M in a flow of tankers - with EATC experts supporting them whilst investigating new dedicated A400M training opportunities in the AAR domain. Spain currently operates eleven A400Ms from Zaragoza air base, of which five are AAR capable - able to be equipped with under-wing mounted refuelling pods and a central Hose Drum Unit (HDU), together with Cargo Hold Tanks (CHT). The HDU and CHT configuration are scheduled to be certified in 2022 by the Spanish Air Testing Center (CLAEX - Centro Logístico de Armamento y Experimentación). By 2023, the Spanish A440M fleet will comprise fourteen aircraft, with plans to increase the number of AAR capable A400M assets to nine.
← eight of the CN235s were converted for Search and Rescue and Maritime Patrol, being re-designated the D4 VIGMA (Vigilancia Maritima - Maritime Surveillance). It is a twin-engine aircraft with a crew of three pilots, two surveillance system operators, a tactical coordination officer, two observers and a flight engineer.
Operating in conjunction with the single VIGMA aircraft were three Airbus Helicopters H215 Super Pumas also on 802 Escuadron strength. The H215 is the latest multi-role version of the hugely successful Super Puma and offers a higher mission versatility with an easy reconfiguration, a larger cabin volume, long range, and a more dedicated mission equipment for search and rescue missions.
EART 2021, the 7th edition of the exercise, offered a number of firsts; the first time EART had taken place outside of the Netherlands; the first time that an A400M had participated in EART; and the first time the Spanish Air Force had participated in the exercise. EART 2021 also saw the first time the A330-MRTT from both the Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF) and the French Air Force participated. This year, EART once again offered dedicated training opportunities to the tanker crews, focusing on similar and dissimilar multi-tanker formations and tanker-to-tanker rendezvous procedures. EART 2021 also reflected the modernisation of EATC’s tanker force over the last couple of years, with modern air-to-air refuelling assets having replaced older types such as the C-135, A310 and KDC-10.
The four Hellenic Air Force F-16s that attended Ocean Sky 2021 trundle down the taxiway towards Runway 03R (photo, left) for a morning mission during Ocean Sky 2021 at Gando, Gran Canaria. 343 Mira bought three C-models and one D-model to the exercise.
The Ocean Sky 2021 and EART exercises took place between 15-29 October at Gando Air Base, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote Air Base respectively, the bases playing host to a large number of aircraft from various Spanish Air Force units, in conjunction with aircraft from invited NATO partner nations.
Aircraft involved in Ocean Sky 2021 (OS21) were Spanish fighters from all of the Ejercito Del Aire’s combat units - Eurofighter EF2000s from Ala.11 based at Moron de la Frontera, and Ala.14 at Albacete; EF-18M Hornets from Ala.12 at Torrejon, and Ala.15 at Zaragoza; and the locally based F/A-18A+ Hornets from Ala. 46. International participants were the Hellenic Air Force F-16s from 343 Mira which are based at Souda, Crete; with a single NATO E-3A Sentry Airborne Early Warning Command and Control System platform. Search and Rescue (SAR) assets throughout OS21 and EART were provided by the Gando based Ala.46 Airbus Helicopters H215 Super Puma helicopters and fixed-wing CASA CN-235 VIGMA aircraft belonging to 802 Escuadron.
superiority and air-to-air refuelling. Training with Spain’s allies helps provides improved interoperability, the exchange of tactics and procedures and strengthens the ties of international cooperation.
The host unit at Gando is Ala.46, with 462 Escuadron operating the F/A-18+ Hornet in the fighter role and providing air defence for the Canary islands. The Hornets
We would like to thank the following for their cooperation in helping make this article, without which it would not have been possible -
Base Aérea de Gando
Mando Aéreo de Canarias (MACAN)
Mando Aéreo de Combat (MACOM)
Lt. Elisa Poveda Sáez
The crew of 'Dumbo 30'
Manolo Acosta Zapata