Military Movements Review: May

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

The month of May will go down in history as a period of time where United States military activity in Gibraltar eclipsed that of our own for the first time since the early 1990s during the conflicts in the Persian Gulf in terms of the unusual, interesting and noteworthy.

A relatively run of the mill month for British military visits was sprinkled with plenty to see in the air and on the water for those who, like me find the sights, sounds and interesting livery of United States military hardware the most exciting of all. May saved the best for last and ended with a spectacular finale which had all military enthusiasts who remember the Cold War era thinking that we were the set of a film based on a Tom Clancy novel.

In the air the month kicked off on its first day with RAF C17 ZZ173 arriving and followed up on the 11th with her sister airframe ZZ171 visiting, both parking at the North Military Apron as is common with these large, impressive transport aircraft.

The United States flying visits began on the 13th with United States Navy C37 Gulfstream ’01-0076’ calling in. Once again no stranger to the rock, this jet is usually seen as a harbinger of a naval visit so hopes were quietly raised. This feeling of cautious optimism was reinforced by the second United States Navy aircraft visit on the 15th when C130T Hercules ‘165349’ of VR-62 arrived. The sound of her four unquietened Allison T56 turboprops brought back poignant memories of the days when our own RAF machines were similarly fitted, a sound that brought many back to the busy days of the 80s and 90s when C130s were so frequent that they hardly raised heads. How things have changed!

A few old friends from the UK wrapped up the month with radar calibrator Beechcraft G-FPLD arriving on the 21st for the usual sorties and C130 ZH888 paying us visits on the 26th and 30th making it one of those rare months in which one type of aircraft from two different nations is seen at RAF Gibraltar. Lastly A400 ZM419 became the final move of the month on the 31st.

At sea, another month of submarine activity began with a boat transfer by a Trafalgar-class on the 4th. My birthday, on the 8th, was marked by another such boat transfer, this time much closer in and off South Mole by a Trafalgar-class, strongly suspected to be HMS Talent which had visited us last month. Later that afternoon the MoD charter vessel SD Northern River, usually seen operating in conjunction with our submarine fleet arrived and berthed at the Tower.

Another charter vessel this time M/V Ocean Glory of the United States Department of Defense Maritime Security Program took bunkers in the Bay on the 12th and was followed by the arrival of RFA Fort Victoria the same day. This large RFA has not been seen here for many years due to her being in long term refit so her arrival via the Northern Entrance proved to be a stirring sight. I can personally vouch for the fact that her crew were delighted to be back on the Rock, a port held in higher regard by that hard-working service than many in or out of uniform may realise at first glance. We hope they continue to cement these historic links.

Our star visit occurred on the 15th of May in the form of the United States Navy Los Angeles class submarine USS Olympia. Ordinarily a Pacific-fleet unit based at Pearl Harbour and the oldest submarine in their service and one of the (in my opinion) more aesthetically-pleasing Flight I variants (carrying her diving planes on the conning tower) cut an impressive sight as she glided in and proudly flew her stars and stripes from her after casing once alongside 50 berth. Another DoD MSP charter vessel bunkered on the 27th when the vehicles carrier M/V Green Ridge arrived.

As I said earlier, right at the end of May military enthusiasts were treated to a sight seen less than 10 times since 1976 according to my records. The Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Talent paid a visit and berthed right behind USS Olympia at South Mole. Despite our status as a vitally strategic base, twin-nuclear submarine visits are extremely rare; rarer still are simultaneous visits by two submarines of two different nations.

Both Talent and Olympia represent a soon to be lost generation of Cold War era attack boats from perhaps the finest era for Western military prowess. The sight of these two venerable Cold Warriors pulled in enthusiasts and casual observers far and wide. It is fervently hoped that this sets a new trend and does not result in yet another painful flash in the pan for our city.

A month like this is hard to beat and I advise from hard earned experience to enjoy it whilst it lasts, however as the temperature rises into June, I still hold out that the amount of military visits will rise with the thermometer! Hope springs eternal and I will be there to talk you through it as always. 

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