FOR CENTURIES THE Canary Islands -700 miles (1,126km) from Spain and 180 miles (290km) from West Africa -provided an important stepping-stone to Africa and America. Today, Ala (Wing) 46 and Escuadron (Squadron) 802 of the Ej6rcito del Aire (Spanish Air Force) are maintaining almost 60 years of continual Spanish presence at this remote location. Just as the islands play host to thousands of holiday-makers, they also welcome Spanish and foreign squadrons keen to use the unrestricted Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) range south of the Canaries.
Gando airport at Gran Canaria is a mixed-use field — its two parallel runways (12,000ft [3,650m] long) have a 03-21 Left/Right orientation, and serve to separate the civil and military sides. Most of the traffic is civil, hosting intensive charter operations from Europe throughout the year and stopovers for flights from/to Africa and the Americas.
The Ej6rcito del Aire has used this remote location since the early 1940s, when the Fiat CR-32 was based here. The different squadrons flew various classic types, and most of the CASA 2111s, C4.K Buchons, T-6D/SNJ-5 Texans, HA-200/C.10 Saetas and even the Ju 52s saw extensive combat service in the colonial Spanish-Saharastruggle from the late 1950s onwards. They flew thousands of missions in a war almost entirely dedicated to Counter-Insurgency (COIN) sorties against Saharan and POLISARIO guerrillas. When the colonies were abandoned in February 1976, the active life of this World War Two-inventory came to an end. From 1976 to 1982, Esc 464 was mainly equipped with three variants of the CASA-Northrop SF-5, which kept an eye on the Soviet Navy vessels using Algeria’s ports, as well as Algeria’s Soviet-equipped Air Force.
In 1982 a democratic Spain joined NATO and from 1983 onwards extensive expansion work was carried out at Base Aerea de Gando, including the creation of hardened aircraft shelters, new hangars and an alert facility near runway 03R. Today the base occupies all the land adjoining the small bay of Gando, between the easterly runway and the sea. It is the centrepiece of the Mando A Sreas de Canarias (MACAN), the regional operational and administrative command which also runs the large surveillance radar station covering the vast air space from Pico de las Nieves (Gran Canaria’s highest peak) to the African coast. Today three very different units guard the Canaries, all under the Ala 46’s Commanding Officer, who is also the base commander.
The venerable Freedom Fighter was withdrawn from service in May 1982 — and so since March 1982 the Mirage FIs (serials in the C.14 range) of Escuadr6n 462 have been the most westerly-based guardians of the European NATO air forces. Spain obtained 15 FICEs (C.14As) (C.14-1 to C.14-15) in 1975, a further ten C.14As in 1978, then six F1BE trainers (CE.14As) (CE.14-26 to CE.14-31) and 20 more C.14AS (C. 14-32 to C. 14-51) in 1980/81. A further 22 multi-role FI EEs (C.14Bs)(С.14-52 to С.14-73) were added between 1981 and 1983. In 1995 Spain agreed to buy 18 used Mirage FIs from France and 13 FIs from Qatar, to replace the 15 aircraft that had been lost in accidents by 1994.
The spearhead of this self-contained mini air force was the first to receive all 22 of the C.14Bs. Following the removal of the Mirage III from Spanish service, all the inventory numbers were recoded from 14-01 to 14-74. The FI EEs were delivered in a bluish-grey scheme and the camouflaged FICEs were repainted in overall light grey as they passed through the main maintenance unit at Albacete/Los Llanos on the mainland. As had been discovered much earlier with the SF-5s, the island’s climate (salt corrosion combined with African sand) had taken its toll on the Mirage fleet. Since 1992 their numbers have been reduced to around 12, comprising a mix of blue and grey C.14A and -Bs, rotating to Esc 462 from Ala 14 at Albacete.
Esc 462’s primary task involves clear-weather interception as part of its regional air defence role. Consequently the ‘Halcones’ are armed with two 30mm DEFA 553 cannon and two AIM-9N AAMs. The squadron currently maintains a two-ship FI formation on a 24-hour response cycle, providing a 5-minute alert during the day and a 15-minute scramble at night. For ACM and Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT), MACAN has priority use of a huge chunk of airspace (30 miles [48km]) south of the islands. It provides several hundred square miles (unrestricted in height) for supersonic and live missile work. About 70% of all missions flown are directed into this sector. Regular training flights are conducted from early morning to noon, thus increasing the chances of finding any downed pilots in the ocean before sunset. The Gandobased aircraft also regularly fly from Lanzarote airport during exercises — a small military facility being permanently maintained here. The civil airports at Tenerife and Fuerteventura are only used in cases of emergency.
About 30% of the sorties flown are taken up with ground target practice for the better equipped FI EEs and most of these involve anti-shipping training using towed target floats in a small section of airspace to the north of the ACM sector. Sometimes the squadron moves to Zaragoza where the CEM1 multi-storage dispensers and BAP 100s, or Durandal dispensers, are used. Thanks to the constant fine weather in the area, annual flying hours are quite high, usually just over 200. The pilots, who on average change their assigned flying units three times during their career, live here with their families, unlike some of the ground crews.
Squadron Leader Luis Garcia Maurino carries the flag for the sleek Mirage FI. During the course of several exchanges with EF-18 units and squadrons from other NATO forces, he has ‘‘learned to fall in love with the C.14 again,» despite coming from the EF-18. “Pilots can achieve surprisingly good results, compared to the obsolete image that the bird has in the eyes of many of the younger generation pilots», said S/L Maurino.“We have sometimes arranged really complicated multi-ship BVR set-ups in DACT against our EF-18s, often up to 20 in eight days of flying, and the FI achieved approximately 50% kills against the much more modern plane.
«If you use all levels, develop good tactical concepts and let your senses grow, a young pilot can learn a lot from these occasions,» he added. “The FI still has its value, but demands a high work-load from the pilot.»
Guests and Deployments
Units from Germany, France, the USAF and the RAF are queuing up to use this unique location — «partly because of the holiday resort image of our environment here”, jokes S/L Maurino. Most of the visiting units comprise other Escuadrones — while NATO units come to Gando for two or three detachments per year. In addition, a foreign squadron is able to use the ACM for one extra term per year. Preparations and results are finalised with ACM video assistance, and analysed — together with the fighter controllers — at briefings and debriefings.
Although the ‘Halcones’ sent detachments to Florennes and NOMAD as well as pilots to Red Flag and as part of the Spanish EF-18 contingent at Aviano, by far the most interesting exchange programme was developed some years ago with the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF). Spain holds a unique position within NATO, because it is the only country with good contacts -including at squadron level — with North African nations such as Tunisia and Morocco. Spain is very proud of its bond with Morocco, because “It is better to have a good neighbour than a far away friend”. Morocco relinquished its territorial claims in the former Spanish Sahara in 1988, having conducted years of air-to-ground operations against the POLISARIO after the Spaniards left in 1976. The anti-Spanish rebel supporter from the 1960s has now become an attractive (and inexpensive) partner for interesting exchanges; particularly so because it uses the same type of aircraft. The RMAF flies its Mirage FICHs from Sidi Slimane, several hundred miles north of the Canaries. Usually once every two years, Sidi Slimane hosts the ‘Halcones’ for a week’s air-to-ground training in the empty and unrestricted desert, “where, you can easily see that the RMAF pilots are very experienced», added S/L Maurino. Moroccan aircraft usually take part in an exchange visit the following week and undertake air-to-air training, «during which you can easily see that they are not so experienced”, he adds, showing off spears, masks and other souvenirs from Africa in the squadron’s mess.
Major changes lie ahead for the Gando Guardians. The FI fleet is now approaching the end of its Spanish Air Force career with the introduction of the Eurofighter. The 87 Eurofighters (to be serial led in the C.16 range) ordered for Spain, will replace the Mirage FIs with Escs 141 and 142 of Ala 14 at Los Llanos and also Esc 462 of Ala 46 at Gando. It is not certain, which will be the first unit to receive its new mounts from 2002, and so it is possible that current aircraft will be replaced by an interim rotation of EF-18s to Gando.
Coming directly under the command of Ala 46 are the transport aircraft of Esc 461
(Foxes). Its CASA 212 Aviocars (T. 12s) undertake tactical transport, a VIP service and general liaison duties plus they also support fighter deployments. The animal depicted on the unit badge is now a local resident — some small long-eared desert foxes having mysteriously found their way to the Canaries from Africa following Moroccan deployments.
The mixed fleet of Esc 802 is dedicated to SAR work (Servicio de Busqueda у Salvamento — Search and Rescue Service). Previously the unit was equipped with the venerable HU-16A (Grumman Albatross) -the old amphibians served until 1979 when they were finally replaced by three Fokker F-27 MPAs. Although perhaps not strictly a maritime patrol platform, the F-27 has an endurance of over 10 hours at low levels (or 1,000 miles [1,600km] at 160kts), and is equipped with state-of-the-art search and weather radars as well as GPS navigational aids. The three airframes have so far accumulated over 27,500 hours patrolling the 580,000 sq miles (1,500,000km2) of MACAN’s area of responsibility. The rotary element uses four AS 332B Super Pumas. The ever-increasing numbers of pleasure and sailing boats in the Atlantic, combined with heavy commercial air & maritime traffic, means that 802 clock up an impressive number of SAR missions. They have supported the search and/or evacuation of 380 ships, attended 60 crashed aircraft and been called to over 1,200 emergencies between the islands, including the search for Robert Maxwell in November 1991. The Escuadron also assists Spanish hospital ships, providing the only source of medical service along the remote — former Spanish -coasts of West Africa. Without doubt, the 120 members of the SAR unit are everybody’s darlings in the Canary Islands.