Salvador Mate Huertas reports on the transfer of Spanish AV-8Ss and TAV-8Ss to the Royal Thai Navy.
AT THE END of October 1996, seven single-seat AV-8Ss and two dual TAV-8S which had served with 8a Escuadrilla of the Spanish Navy’s Fleet Air Arm for over 20 years, joined the Royal Thai Navy. They became part of 301 Squadron, the strike fighter element of a new air group being established for the new Principe de Asturias class carrier, the RTNS Chakri Naruebet.
The 8a Escuadrilla was commissioned on September 29, 1976, and during the early years it gained valuable carrier utilisation experience of these multi-role STOVL strike fighters, as it is a little known fact that the Spanish Navy was the first to operate these jets from sea-going platforms on a regular basis.
After the new AV-8B Harrier II Plus entered operational service in 1995, it was decided to withdraw the first-generation Harriers from service due to budgetary restrictions, even though they still had about eight to ten years of operational life left in their airframes and systems. After the purchase by the Royal Thai Navy of the carrier RTNS Chakri Naruebet —built by Empresa Nacional Bazan, the Spanish main naval shipbuilding company, the way was open for Spain to sell its AV-8Ss and TAV-8Ss to equip the new carrier’s air group.
After intensive negotiations a contract was signed covering delivery (after refurbishment by CASA) of the seven single-seaters (an eighth was lost in May 1994), two two-seaters, three spare engines, a large stock of spares and the training of pilots and groundcrew.
The last flight of 8a Escuadrilla (callsign Phoenix) took place on October 21, 1996 in aircraft 01-808 — the crew, Lt Cdr Flethes and Lt Sendagorta, completed an instrument rating mission. The unit had logged 26,244:5 flight hours, while of the 60 Spanish Navy fast jet pilots, 46 were posted to the 8a Escuadrilla. In fact a total of 11 of its pilots have been transferred to the 9a Escuadrilla (AV-8B and AV-8B + ) since it was commissioned, in addition to the eight who formed its initial nucleus. Of these, four were transferred in July, thus the 8a Escuadrilla ended its days with seven pilots, the same number that formed the Training Team.
The 8a Escuadrilla pilot who had logged the most hours on the first-generation Harrier was Lt Cdr Jose Palomino Ulla with 2,014 hours, followed by Cmdrs Ruizbeeriz (1.973), Guevara (1,605). Lt Cdr Galiana (1,300), Captain Valdes (1,203) and Lt Cdr Flethes (1,100).
8a Escuadrilla was decommissioned on October 24, 1996, the same day that the jets were transferred to the Royal Thai Navy and the date on which most of the personnel were transferred to the newly-activated Training & Support Team.
The Team’s commanding officer is Cdr Diaz-Guevara, and the unit comprises the following instructors: Lt Cdr Flethes (executive officer), Lt Cdr Galiana, and Lts Sendagorta, Nunez, Murga and Mato, while maintenance personnel consist of two officers and 26 NCOs.
By the end of 1996 four Thai pilots had begun their training at Rota — there should have been five, but one failed the naval aviator course with the US Navy. Another four are due to arrive during the first six months of this year, followed by five more during the second half of 1997. Each group’s training lasts for about nine months and includes about 100 flight hours. The syllabus breaks down as follows: familiarisation 18 hrs, instruments 18, formations 10, ACM 12, low level 8, simulated carrier landings and take-offs 8, landings and take-offs from carrier 4, interceptions 3, interdiction 7, close-air-support 4 and night navigation 8. The pilot makes his first solo flight after completing the 18 familiarisation hours and six hours on instruments. The first group of pilots will undertake their carrier qualification sorties this May and June.
Originally the RTN unit was to have been designated 105 Squadron, but it changed to 301 Squadron (with the same callsign as the extinct 8a Escuadrilla). Its commanding officer is Lt Cdr Piya Atmungkun, while the other three pilots of the first group are Lts Kiatiyu Tiansuwan, Naron Nilnampetch and Jakara Tongchim, also on strength are 31 maintenance officers and NCOs, while in the second level of maintenance there are eight officers and 12 NCOs.
By early March AV-8Ss, serialled 3107 and 3109, had already received their specified medium grey scheme, carrying the Thai flag on the tail, in lieu of the Spanish Fleet Air Arm wings, the wording Royal Thai Navy in place of ARMADA, and the USN Bureau Number and designation AV-8A. On the other hand the TAV-8S two-seaters, 3101 and 3102, have the original Spanish scheme but with RTN markings, while the five remaining AV-8Ss will be painted during the coming months.
Initially it was planned to carry out all the training at Rota until late summer 1998, but now it seems that the Harriers will embark this summer on the Chakri Naruebet — which was handed over by Bazan to the Royal Thai Navy in March 1997, after completion of her sea trials. They will sail to Thailand accompanied by a Spanish pilot and a maintenance officer, but if it is considered necessary to continue the training in Thailand at 301 Sqn’s shore base U-Tapao, then four Spanish pilots, a maintenance officer and eight NCOs will go with them.
The RTNS Chakri Naruebet (hull number 911) is basically similar in design to the Spanish Principe de Asturias, although lighter — weighing 12,284 tons instead of 16,700. The Thai carrier also has ample and comfortable living space for four members of its royal family.