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When a P3 Orion flies over the Indian Ocean

(B2) Aerial surveillance of the Indian Ocean is an essential vector for the European Union's anti-piracy operation (EUNAVFOR Atalanta). The Bundeswehr recently published a small account of the typical day of its sailors-aviators whose main quality is curiosity.... Here it is

In the cockpit of the P3 Orion (credit: Bundeswehr/Carsten Vennemann)

The German Navy's P-3C Orion, which responds to the radio call sign "Jester", was in the area from September to the end of November. 280 flight hours to his credit to monitor an area larger than Europe. It was relayed on site by a Spanish P-3M Orion, before returning to take over in March (1). This testimony, even coming from an official communication organ is interesting, because it largely retraces the daily life of these men (and women) responsible for scanning the sea in search of the slightest indication of possible pirates.

It's hot

At half past five in the morning, the thermometer already points to 30 degrees - and it will only go up. The heat and humidity in Djibouti are a challenge for both men and materials. Technicians from Nordholz Naval Aviation Squadron 3 head for the French Air Force Air Base.

The sea is calming and the risk is increasing

The off-season begins that day. The sea off Somalia is calming and the likelihood of pirate attacks is increasing. Along the Somali coast, one of the most important trade routes in the world. Even if the risk of hacker attacks has been reduced in recent times, the time remains for vigilance.

The smoldering fire of piracy

« Piracy is like a smoldering fire here. All it takes is a gust of wind and the fire is rekindled “, explains shift supervisor Etienne Wilke. Aged 39, he has already served six times as a corvette captain in Djibouti. The old pirates have ceased their activity “ It became too dangerous for them.

The pre-flight inspection

Arrived at the base, the German soldiers begin with the pre-flight inspection, which will last three hours. The "Mission Assistance Center" (MSC), the operational center of the German participation in Atalanta, is on fire. Server cabinets are buzzing. Fans cool the room. Chief Petty Officer Hagen Klein, seated in a corner, leafs through a file. This is the aerial image evaluator.

Preparing for work after

The captains (Kapitanleutnant) Timo Brasch* and Werner Rudolph* are also in front of their monitor in the MSC, making lists and setting data. The two officers in charge of intelligence andtasking' prepare the crew briefing. “Missions are prepared, accompanied and monitored “, explains Rudolph. " When the apparatus returns this evening, the main work will begin for us. Then, hundreds of new photos and videos will need to be spotted.

Twelve camps to explore

Seven o'clock in the morning: the briefing begins. Today, direction: the southern coast of Somalia. Twelve camps are to be traversed and explored, all former pirate nests. Half an hour before departure, the crew assembles on the plane. The navigator explains the route and explains the points to check. Then Jester takes off.

Two hour flight

The flight to the operation area takes more than two hours. " The surveillance field is huge, the distances are long says co-pilot Torsten Maler*. For the operators, until the arrival in the target area, there is little to do. Lead navigator Markus Bayer* helps himself to a coffee in the aircraft's small galley. For him, this is the third mission to Atalanta. " We always take turns at the different stations. After a while it is very tiring to focus on the camera or radar. Even as a window watcher, you can't watch the water forever.

Somali coast in sight

The Somali coast is in sight, the Jester has reached the operational area. Halfway up, the first camp is flown over: “ There is a ruined house and orange tarps that once served as tents. No people, no boats on the beach. Nevertheless, everything is photographed to update the old images of the camp [which are in the database]. The plane continues to the next camp.

Everything is recorded automatically

Bayer zooms in with the high resolution camera. Everything is recorded automatically. Despite the distance of several nautical miles, everything on the screen is sharp and close enough to touch. In the village there are people, cars and a herd of camels to recognize. On the beach are a handful of skiffs, small fishing boats typical of the region. The camp is again flown over so as not to miss any detail.

A whaler, fisherman or pirate?

On the third approach, a whaler. Concentrated soldiers sit in front of their consoles, taking pictures and logging on. Fisherman or pirate? The big fishing boat is attracting interest aboard the Jester. The plane makes another pass to check. The boat crew looks up into the sky, then returns to work. " Nothing shiny, probably just fishermen. Often they lift their tarps to show off their cargo or nets. They know why we are here “says Bayer. Monitoring completed, the aircraft returns to base.

Back to base, ready to take off again

The technicians are already waiting on the base. Immediately after landing, the aircraft should be ready to take off again. Assoon as Jester reaches its parking position, the plane is surrounded by technicians: the power supply and air conditioning lines are connected, the engine flaps on the fuselage open, the fill levels checked, etc. " Every step, every move, the whole process seems like repeated choreography. All have one goal: to get Jester ready to go again as soon as possible. ". For the crew, the day ends after a brief debrief. For the three MSC soldiers, the day begins with the drafting of the mission report which will take a few hours.

(translated and formatted by NGV)

*names changed

  1. Germany has been present in Operation Atalanta from the start. It provides twice a year, a maritime surveillance device, type P3 Orion, for a period of three months, with a crew of more than 70 soldiers.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).