May 02 - Military Movements Review: April

YGTV’s article series continues - each month, David Sanchez will review military visits to the Rock. Drawing on his in-depth knowledge and photographic skills, the articles will provide readers with valuable background facts to the aircraft and vessels that pop into the Rock.

By David Michael Sanchez

Despite looking at first glance to be a pretty run-of-the-mill if not quiet month, April has proven to be one of the most varied and unusual in a long time for military visits to the Rock. Whilst lacking in ‘grey hull’ warship visits the picture at sea was significant in its own way. Adding to this were a brace of United States Air Force visits which resulted in our transatlantic allies practically rivalling our own armed forces in terms of visit numbers to Gibraltar for the month.

In the air April began with the arrival of a relatively frequent and familiar visitor. The distinctive blue and white radar calibrator Beechcraft B200 G-FPLD called in on the first of the month and carried out its usual sorties over the next few days.

Uncle Sam appeared for the first time on the 8th as United States Air Force Gates C21 Learjet ’84-0085’ arrived for one of their usual mid morning stops before departing in the early afternoon with a thrilling visual circuit of the Rock included as a bonus. This was followed up on the 16th by a second C21 in the form of ’84-0096’ both repeat visitors and a much welcome sight in these highly predictable days. Welcome as our usual trio of RAF transport aircraft types as, those of us who remember more active days for RAF Gibraltar relish the sight of a different type of airframe with different livery.

On the subject of transports we did get a rare visit by an RAF BAe146 in the form of ZE708 which arrived on the 17th. Although no stranger to the Rock herself, these machines are usually operated by 32Sqd in the VIP transport role but occasionally do call in on regular transport duties. Once again it served to break the routine of A400/C130/C17 visits which are the norm these days.

The month wound up with a further two transport moves with our friend C130 Hercules ZH888 arriving on the 23rd and A400 ZM409 on the 26th.

As I mentioned earlier, the picture looking out to sea was a disappointing one for anyone wanting warship visits alongside. However, this does not detract from the fact that a few interesting units did call in and around the Rock this April.

The United States Maritime Security Program and Ready Reserve Fleet were frequent visitors this month and the first of these was the MSP tanker Overseas Mykonos calling in for bunkers yet again on the 3rd making her a now relatively familiar sight. The MoD charter RoRo Eddystone followed her the next day.

The highlight of the month occurred in the Strait of Gibraltar on the 13th when the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln crossed inbound. She was visible through the haze together with her escorts and a great many ‘long lens’ maritime photographers were lucky enough to catch sight of her, including myself. It is a matter of undisguised chagrin that no unit called in at Gibraltar despite having our naval base wide open at this time. Sadly ‘Abe’ proceeded to Palma de Mallorca with her escorts calling in at Rota and Valencia. The presence of a Spanish frigate in her battle group may likely be a reason for this but many observed that this wouldn’t have been the case during our better days.

The next day the MoD charter tanker Maersk Raleigh arrived for bunkers as well, this is the first time one has called in since the days when her predecessor Maersk Rapier was a constant sight around our waters.

Two United States Ready Reserve Fleet visits then occurred on the eastern side with M/V Empire State T-AOT5193 anchoring on the 15th with M/V Cape Wrath T-AKR9962 conducting a boat transfer off Europa Point on the 18th.

The end of the month saw a small flurry of British maritime activity finally. The support ship SD Northern River arrived on the 24th which was a harbinger for the arrival of the Trafalgar class submarine HMS Talent a day later. Coming relatively soon after the visit by HMS Ambush it seems that the tempo of submarine visits to Gibraltar continues to show an upward curve and is not the usual flash in the pan which was predicted previously. The significance of these visits cannot be overestimated from a local perspective given the continued frequency of Spanish Naval incursions which take place with little to show on our side in terms of counter presence. Still a submarine visit is a potent reminder of the difference in capabilities of both fleets and serves to reassure many in a way that might not be immediately apparent to those in defence circles. Long may these visits continue!

April drew to a close with another MoD RoRo visit and another boat transfer as Hartland Point conducted one off Europa Point on the 28th.

In sum the month has been one of fleeting visits by interesting and varied units both at sea and in the air. I am obliged to say that the lack of warship visits and sovereignty patrols was to be regretted considering the high amount of warship incursions including the well publicised antics of SPS Vigia and the sight of SPS Juan Carlos I calling in at Algeciras for an open day, something our city still waits in vain for, despite them occurring all over the place!

David Sanchez is a local military enthusiast and photographer with a degree in International Relations and Strategic Studies.