Airlift for experts

Roberto Yáñez and Alex Rodríguez report from Zaragoza Air Base, Spain, home of the European Tactical Airlift Centre in Spain


Becoming more and more numerous with the Luftwaffe, the Atlas has proven itself to be a very versatile transport aircraft.
All images Roberto Yáñez

One of the main objectives of the European Defence Agency (EDA) has always been to have at its disposal a fleet of military airlift aircraft operating under a single command and using common operational procedures. With the opening of the ETAC at Zaragoza Air Base, Spain on June 8, 2017, it became effectively and permanently possible to transfer this ambitious EDA project to a host nation, bringing about the culmination of several years of development and the ability to demonstrate the benefits of a common defence policy.

The ETAC is a multinational training centre that stems from the signing of a technical agreement outlining the necessity for a common training scheme for tactical airlift aircrews. Eleven nations (Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain) participated. With requirements identified, the ETAC developed the European Tactical Airlift Programme (ETAP) with a personalised and efficient training programme for airlift in Europe, in a bid to lead to increased interoperability between all of the members.

Supported in part by the European Air Transport Command, the ETAP reached initial operational capability in September 2017 and will reach full operational capability (FOC) in September 2019. The centre is manned by staff from all nations involved with the infrastructure needed to undertake its tasks.

Once FOC is achieved, it will be possible to increase its capabilities and the projects it undertakes, based on demand from the member nations. Its location at Zaragoza is of no coincidence. The base has a large aircraft parking ramp along with hangars and auxiliary buildings, favourable meteorological conditions for the type of courses and training undertaken, and close proximity to various training ranges and flying areas with very little traffic, making it ideal for tactical flying.

The ETAP currently offers a complete, ambitious programme of instruction that includes pre-course online training and practical training. Products offered by the ETAP replace those previously offered by the EDA’s European Air Transport Fleet Programme and the courses have been retitled in the following forms: ETAP-T (previously European Air Transport Training or EATT), a tactical training programme tailored to train European tactical airlift crews ETAP-C (previously the European Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Course or EAATTC), a training course that upgrades medium qualified crew members to full combat-ready status ETAP-S (previously the European Air Transport Symposium or EATS), a symposium to exchange experience between the diff erent nations ETAP-I (previously the European Advanced Tactical Instructor Course or EATIC), a course that trains instructor pilots

ETAP-T in Zaragoza

A German Airbus A400M Atlas receives last-minute instructions from a Spanish Combat Control Team from the EADA before conducting a low approach to the dirt runway at the Ablitas airfield.
Among other tasks, the Ejército del Aire’s Escuadrilla de Apoyo al Despliegue Aéreo is charged with providing Combat Control Teams to mark runways and to control air traffic at Teruel and Huesca airports and the airfield at Ablitas. In the image are two members of the EADA next to a Belgian Combat Control Team.
This C-130J-30 Super Hercules was recently handed over to the Armée de l’Air and is operated by ET 02/61 based at BA123 Orléans-Bricy. The first pilots for the French C-130J-30 came from the C-130H, C-160R and CN235 with a minimum of 1,200 to 1,500 flight hours of experience.

Although the ETAC has its home at Zaragoza, courses and training scheduled during any year can take place in any of the programme member countries. In this way, if one of the countries requests it and it meets the necessary minimum requirements it, too, can conduct the courses. This year the symposium will take place in Lisbon, while the four instructor training courses will take place at their usual location, Pisa Air Base, Italy. Two ETAP-C classes, those for crew members, are programmed for Zaragoza, while the remaining two will take place at Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and Orléans, France.

Crew training is only scheduled for one exercise a year. This year it returned to Zaragoza after being conducted in Bulgaria in 2018 and Portugal in 2017.

Since ETAP-T is designed for crews qualified as combat ready, this annual exercise focuses on standardisation of manoeuvres undertaken during tactical flying and a review of certain procedures. Since the exercise is open to participation from countries that do not belong to the ETAC, such as the case this year with Romania, there can at times be some initial difficulties as a consequence of a lack of interoperability between these countries and the member nations of the programme, although after the two weeks of the course there is a noticeable improvement in the crews and their adaption to the programme and its objectives.

The countries that took part in this year’s ETAP-T were Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the already mentioned Romania.

The number of participating aircraft depends on any limitations imposed by the host nation, limitations that come about from the great eff ort needed to conduct these types of operations and the associated support required by these types of aircraft. On this occasion the number of participating aircraft was limited to ten, specifically, four C-130 Hercules (Armée de l’Air, Österreichische Luftstreitkräfte, Royal Air Force and Royal Netherlands Air Force), three A400s (Ejército del Aire and Luftwaff e), two C-27J Spartans (Aeronautica Militare and For?ele Aeriene ale Romaniei) and a single C-160 Transall (Luftwaff e).

With regards to crews, each country can bring several crews per aircraft, since daily an average of three flying periods are programmed (morning, afternoon and night). As an example for this recent ETAP-T Germany operated two A400Ms and one Transall, which were flown by three Atlas crews and a single crew for the veteran C-160.

The number of daily sorties also has its limitations, either by the host nation or by the necessities expressed by the participating countries. In this exercise, three sorties a day were scheduled for three of the days of the exercise, while the rest of the days saw two daily sorties. Other limitations to the number of sorties flown include a limit of 12 duty hours for crews flying tactical missions. Each flight usually lasts a maximum of two flight hours, to which one needs to add four hours before flight to plan the mission, as well as time allocated to briefing and debriefing and other tasks.

Zaragoza has not hosted the multinational ETAP-T exercise, which was formerly known as EATT, since 2013.
The Aeronautica Militare sent one of its Alenia MC-27J Praetorian to Zaragoza. The aircraft is operated by 98 Gruppo/46 Brigatta Aerea based at Pisa-San Giusto.

In order to maximise the deployment of aircraft and crews, the ETAP-T was structured to train more than just aircrew.

Zaragoza saw the activation of a Maintenance Operations Centre tasked with coordinating the maintenance requirements of the participating nations. For example, in the case of the A400M, German and Spanish maintainers worked on each other’s aircraft during specific maintenance or repair tasks, this facilitated the transfer of information and experience between personnel. The centre was also tasked with coordinating spare parts and support equipment for the operation of the aircraft, this minimised the needed logistics chain with the subsequent lowering of costs. Preparation of cargos for airdrop was another training aspect. Normally the host nation provides this service, in this case the Ejército del Aire’s Escuadrilla de Apoyo al Despliegue Aéreo (EADA or Aerial Deployment Support Flight) provides this service in Spain.

However, two of the participating nations, specifically the UK and the Netherlands, brought their own specialist personnel to Zaragoza to prepare cargos for airdrop; for these teams, an international Combined Air Terminal Operation was set up to coordinate the loading of aircraft. Another aspect of the exercise was the participation of various Air Mobile Protection Teams (AMPTs), in this case belonging to France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

These AMPTs flew on several missions and had the opportunity to simulate their security role during the tactical landings at the forward operating airfields in Teruel and Huesca, as well as the dirt airstrip at Ablitas. Even though the airports at Teruel and Huesca have hard runways they are still ideal sites for this type of training, due to their respective low volume of air traffic. The airfield at Ablitas is a military installation located 90km (55 miles) northwest of Zaragoza with a compacted dirt runway. In either case the runways were previously marked by Combat Control Teams (CCT) from the EADA in order to undertake both simulated and real engine running onload/offload and combat offloads.

Both the classes and training organised as part of the ETAP are open to nations outside of the programme. Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania frequently participate as invited countries.
ETAP-T missions are very varied and include both real and simulated engine running onload/offload operations and combat offloads.

As host nation, Spain also provided various assets to support the missions, such as fighter aircraft for the transport aircraft to practise evasive manoeuvres against, paratroopers from the army’s Brigada Paracaidista (BRIPAC or Paratrooper Brigade), medical and SAR support and ground to air threats. To provide surface-to-air threats a team deployed to the Bárdenas range with an infrared threat replicator and smoky surface-to-air missiles to provide more realism to the operations.

After two weeks of training, the Zaragoza ETAP-T finished with a total of 116 sorties out of 122 planned, resulting in an excellent 95% eff ectiveness. Although the agreement has yet to be signed, Italy has off ered to host the next ETAP-T exercise in 2020. Next year could see either Decimomannu or Pisa Air Bases being chosen to host this demanding training event.

Meanwhile between September 9 and 20 of this year, Zaragoza will host the fourth and last ETAP-C course of the year, while the two final ETAP-I classes will take place at Pisa-San Guisto during November. AI

Royal Air Force Hercules C4 ZH870 is seen here during a tactical landing on the dirt runway at Ablitas airfield.
The European Tactical Airlift Centre was inaugurated at Zaragoza Air Base, Spain on June 8, 2017. It has a permanent multinational staff, as can be seen in the photograph.
Cargo bay of an Austrian C-130 prepared for a combat offload.
Some years ago the runway at Ablitas was reinforced and widened in order for the prototype Airbus A400M to undertake some of its certification tests. Since its commissioning, Ejército del Aire Ala 31 Atlas are frequent visitors here, as are the unit’s Hercules.