Military Movements Review: December

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 Sanchez

As predicted in my last article, 2020 left the best for last. A very busy month in the air was to be had as RAF transport visits continued unabated and at sea, we were treated to perhaps one of the most exciting arrivals in a very long time.

December was a month where there was hardly a day without a military aircraft seen parked at RAF Gibraltar from start to finish. Our perennial friend the A400 was first to land with ZM401 calling in on the 3rd. 

The next day we had the rare and always head turning sight of a United States Navy C130T Hercules, specifically ‘165161’. Veteran observers will always keep their fingers crossed when one of these machines arrive as they are often harbingers of further exciting visits and this was certainly the case as shall be explained later in the article! 

We were then treated to the sights and sounds of the first of many RAF C17 visits with ZZ178 rumbling in on the 5th of the month with her sister airframe ZZ174 following her on the 7th, the same day that A400 ZM406 called in, giving us the rare sight of two transport aircraft of two different types at RAF Gibraltar. Our C17 hat trick was completed the next day with ZZ173 calling in and operating daily over the next few days.  ZM403’s arrival on the 11th heralded a short pause in visits until the old workhorse that is the RAF C130 Hercules completed a most interesting month in the air with ZH870 giving us twin visits on the 19th and 20th. We therefore once again had 3 different types of RAF heavy lift transport machines in Gibraltar this month as well as two Hercules operated by two different services. For once a bit of variety was to be had!

At sea December kicked off with the visit of the year in my humble opinion. On the first day of the month the secretive and highly capable United States Navy nuclear powered attack submarine USS Seawolf gave us the second visit of her career thus far. What differed to previous submarine visits was the pleasing amount of official public relations and social media cover given to her by the US Navy and associated accounts. This marks a big departure from the past and it is hoped that it is a sign of increased presence by Uncle Sam on the Rock!

The very next day Gibraltar played host to the United Kingdom Border Force Cutter Valiant who was homeward bound from the Mediterranean after a length deployment. It is always a great pleasure to host these hard-worked vessels and their friendly and professional crews. In many ways it was the return of an old friend. 

‘Our own’ Batch 2 River class patrol boat HMS Trent then visited on the 7th before two visits by United States Department of Defense charter vessels, the vehicles carrier Liberty Pride on the 10th and the oiler Overseas Mykonos on the 30th ended a month to remember.

On the whole for 2020 my figures show that air visits to Gibraltar are higher than has been seen for a very long time and the British mission to Mali has played a large albeit temporal part in driving figures up. We once again are left without the stirring sight of fast jets or even Hawk trainers and barring the few days in September it was an almost barren year for rotorcraft. In good news however we have had a veritable air show of transport aircraft of all types to keep our eyes glued to the skies and Uncle Sam hasn’t been the stranger he often was. For 2021 we fervently hope that this time the maiden visit of the P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft cannot be too far away! 

At sea we were down a few visits from 2019 but that is to be expected given the global pandemic. It was however highly reassuring to finally welcome HMS Trent to the Med although slightly worrying that she has since returned to UK waters and we eagerly await her return. Among the highlights of the year were the visit by the Littoral Strike Group Experimental (LRGX) deployment in September and the visits by both USNS Medgar Ever and Seawolf. There is cause for optimism as we await the maiden deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier group to the Mediterranean and further afield as stated by official MoD sources, it is to be hoped that we will play a not too small part in that!

As the new year is ushered in with unfortunately ever rising COVID cases and a new lockdown, we may expect an understandably slow January but from the safety of my balcony I will do my best to keep abreast of things and hopefully spread some enthusiasm via these pages. Please do stay safe and adhere to the rules and we hope for better days