Leonard van den Broek and Paul Mali, Four Aces Aviation Photography, report on the Spanish Army's small force of attack helicopters
The Castilla La Mancha Region in southern-central Spain is where Don Quixote once battled against windmills, mistaking them for oppressive giants sent by evil enchanters, but today is where Almagro Army Air Base, home to BHELA I (Batallón de Helicópteros de Ataque, Número 1), is located. Facing real battlefield threats instead of 'windmills', BHELA I operates the Bo-105 helicopter as a 'tank killer'.
This battalion is unique, as it is the only dedicated attack helicopter unit of FAMET (Fuerzas Aeromóviles del Ejército de Tierra - Airmobile Forces of the Spanish Army). BHELA I was established in 1980, at the main helicopter base of FAMET at Colmenar Viejo, near Madrid. In 1983 BHELA I moved to Almagro, located some 100 miles south of Madrid.
1981 and 1983, BHELA I received a total of 60 Bo-105 helicopters of three
In addition to the Bo-105s, BHELA I also operates a small number of UH-1H Hueys. These are all unarmed and only in use for tactical transport and support duties.
Currently, the battalion still operates some twenty-eight examples of ATH version. In recent years, the helicopters have received some updates and modernisation, as Lt Luis Sánchez, Bo-105 pilot explains: "These updates also resulted in the phasing out of the GSH cannon-equipped version. It proved uneconomical to update them. But we do not know what will happen to these airframes. Because the gun was fitted in a fixed position, the helicopter itself had to move in order to aim the gun. So these helicopters received some modifications, to make them more agile. This makes them a bit 'special' compared to the other versions. Converting them to LOH standard would result in a very agile helicopter!"
The anti-armour task of BHELA I requires the pilots to extensively train in 'tactical flying'. Lt Luis Sánchez explains: "Tactical flying usually means flying at very low level, sometimes only a few feet above the ground. We also call this 'nap of the earth flying' or NOE. In the Almagro area, we have a number of training areas where we can train all kinds of tactical flying." Tactical flying is not without hazard. Lt Sánchez: "In combat, we fly NOE over the insecure areas. But in these 'hot' areas, a single 'lucky' rifle shot can take down a helicopter. In peace time, the greatest danger in low level flying are high obstacles as power lines [high-tension cables]". Despite these risks, BHELA I has logged more than 85,000 accident-free flight hours over a period of twenty years.
Some ATH 105s have been adapted for use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG). Because NVG makes use of residual light at night, the original interior cockpit lighting was too strong. Reduction of the cockpit light intensity and a change of the light colour to green or red makes the cockpit lighting compatible for use with NVGs. NVGs are not required to perform night flying with the 105 - however, the low-level 'adapted terrain flying' required for the antitank mission is very difficult to perform at night without NVGs. Currently, BHELA I has three flight instructors qualified to instruct night flying on the BO-105.
The most recent operational deployment of BHELA I was during the 'Isla Perejil' ('Parsley-island') crisis. In July 2002, Spain and Morocco disputed the sovereignty over this small Spanish island off the coast of Morocco. Morocco captured the island, but after a few days it was recaptured by Spanish Armed Forces. Three canon-equipped Bo-105s provided close air support to Spanish Special Forces conducting the operation. FAMET also provided some Super Pumas, Cougars and armed Hueys for this operation. Fortunately, with the quick retaking of the island the crisis also ended, with both countries resuming negotiations.
A new combat helicopter - replacement for the 105
In September 2004, the Spanish government selected the Eurocopter Tiger HAD (Hélicoptère Appui-Destruction, Attack Support Helicopter) as the new attack helicopter for FAMET. However, the performance of the original Rolls Royce/Turboméca MTR 390 was regarded insufficient for 'hot and high' conditions. Spain's Tiger HAD helicopters will therefore receive upgraded 'Enhanced MTR 390' engines, with 14% more engine power. The Tiger HAD can be equipped with the new European 'Trigat' antitank missile. Other armament will include a 30mm turret-mounted gun, Mistral air-to-air missiles and rocket pods. The first three Tiger airframes will be delivered late 2004, with another three scheduled for 2005. These initial six airframes are all of the 'HAP' version, which is operated by the French Army Aviation (ALAT), but by 2008 they will have been converted into HADs. 18 further HADs will be received between 2007-11.
The authors would like to thank Maj Matesanz, Lt Sanchez and the personnel of BHELA I for their co-operation.