Located in the rugged, western Peloponnesus peninsula of Greece is the last operational bastion of the Ling Temco Vought A-7 Corsair II. Araxos Air Base, located approximately 37 km west of the city of Patras and the home of 116 Combat Wing Hellenic Air Force, opened its doors for two days in October for a last opportunity to witness the final throes of this classic strike aircraft prior to the official retirement of the type from Hellenic Air Force service in a ceremony to be held the following day. Tom Gibbons reports for Global Aviation Resource.
336 Mira “Olympos”, commanded by Major Apostolos Papadopoulos, were the final operators of the venerable A-7 anywhere in the world and in June news began to filter out of Greece that an event to mark the retirement of the aircraft after a career of 39 years in Hellenic Air Force service was in the planning phase; interest in the proposed event proved to be huge, with a great number of requests from enthusiasts and the media to visit Araxos being submitted to the authorities.
By early October plans for the Spotters Day were publicised with the intention to fly a three-ship of Corsairs in the morning followed by a similar sortie in the afternoon, with those present also being granted access to the many stored and cannibalised aircraft situated within the squadron complex. This was to be a unique opportunity for many of those present whilst also proving a sad sight with many airframes in various states of disrepair. Some of these had simply become life expired, whilst others had reached a point where repair was uneconomical but support of the operational fleet was still achievable as they served as donors with components being used to maintain the airworthiness of the remaining fliers until they too reached the end of their service life.
Greece had received a total of 133 examples of the Corsair II and the distinguished career of the type in Hellenic service is detailed elsewhere, but suffice to say that initial deliveries of 60 A-7H then five TA-7H (‘H’ for Hellenic) variants took place in 1975 followed by an additional purchase of a further batch of 50 A-7E and 18 TA-7C Corsair IIs in 1992. These additional aircraft had previously been flown by the US Navy and were acquired by Greece following a short period in storage at AMARC (now AMARG) in Tucson, Arizona. Surprisingly, nearly 50% of the total fleet of Greek Corsairs were noted during GAR’s visit to Araxos!
Coming back to the Spotters Day and the level of access afforded was superb; most aircraft were available for close inspection and photography with those earmarked for sorties during the day parked within easy reach of the cameras. A stroll through the ‘boneyard’ was possible with only a small number of cannibalised airframes alongside a number of F-104 hulks deemed to be out of bounds. Out of these, one in particular stood out – TA-7C 154404 was an ex-US Navy example initially leased by the Portuguese Air Force for conversion training prior to delivery of the TA-7P and is possibly the only A-7 to have served with both European operators of the type.
The morning sortie commenced with the distinctive whine of the air start trollies followed by the three A-7s coming to life on the flight line; the squadron had chosen to fly the twin seat aircraft during the day, presumably to allow as many personnel as possible to have a final hour or so airborne. The first wave didn’t quite work out for one crew who were ignominiously towed back to the squadron dispersal following a technical problem encountered during the EOR checks; the aircraft sadly taking no further part in the day’s proceedings.
Despite the limelight being stolen by the TA-7s the squadron flagship, A-7E 160616 known simply as “Olympus” and carrying a superb special colour scheme, was started and taxied past the photographers prior to relocating to the north of the airfield in preparation for the ceremony the next day. Elsewhere, with the pair of TA-7s airborne there was still a fair bit of activity to be observed; F-16s from 335 Mira across the airfield launched on sorties, whilst a visiting 330 Mira F-16D from Nea Anchialos arrived, again presumably in preparation for the retirement ceremony. A display rehearsal was flown by the “Daedalus” team in their specially marked T-6A Texan II with “Team Zeus” arriving from Souda straight into a rehearsal sortie with the F-16C. Sadly, neither of the F-4E Phantoms parked in the 335 Mira shelter area was to move that day.
The afternoon sortie was running slightly late and by now the sun had moved around, making life tricky for the photographers; however, the groundcrew were superb, towing the aircraft to a position that put the sun over the photographers’ shoulders and allowed for a close-up view of the start-up and pre-flight routine. It was fascinating watching the crews coaxing these old dinosaurs to life, the painstaking process a huge contrast to that applied to today’s high tech ‘electric’ jets. The crews (both air and ground) were clearly making the most of the day, many snapping away with their own cameras, capturing the moment for posterity. Also apparent was the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the squadron personnel; this was clearly a tight knit team intent on ensuring that the A-7 went out in style.
With initial start-up complete, the serviceability gods were far kinder for the afternoon sortie with all three aircraft getting airborne, at least one backseater showing as much interest in the photographers as they were with the aircraft! On return the three aircraft arrived from the west directly overflying the squadron area in a tight ‘vic’ formation before breaking to land, clearly a moving moment for many. Surprisingly, and conflicting with the information provided, the aircraft were quickly turned around and departed for a final late afternoon sortie as the Spotters Day drew to a close – demand for those precious rear seats must have been high!
The retirement ceremony held the next day took place on the north-west side of the airfield, with a large hangar configured for the many VIPs and guests in attendance; a small static display was staged consisting of a single A-7H and two A-7E (including the “Olympus” A-7E, 160616) and a TA-7C with single examples of the type’s successor, the F-16C and F-16D; the TA-7 was displayed with a comprehensive array of weapons arranged around the aircraft whilst one of the remaining A-7s and the F-16s were displayed with representative weapons fits. Honorary guests included the Minister of National Defence, Dimitris Avramopoulos, Deputy Minister of National Defence, Ioannis Lampropoulos, Chief of HNDGS (Hellenic National Defence General Staff), General Michail Kostarakos, Chief of HNGS (Hellenic Navy General Staff), Vice-Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis and the Chief of HAFGS (Hellenic Air Force General Staff), Lieutenant General Evangelos Tournas.
Following mass the ceremony commenced with a Roll Call of the Fallen, the names of each of the thirteen pilots to have made the ultimate sacrifice serving their country being read out to the assembled guests; on completion of the Roll Call a pair of Corsairs flew low over the ceremony in salute. A 336 Mira officer then delivered a short speech following which the specially painted A-7 was revealed to the guests, the scheme tastefully illustrating the squadrons to have flown the aircraft. A small but welcome feature was identification of each aircraft to have served with the Hellenic Air Force within a small area located under the wing roots.
The distinguished history of the A-7 in Hellenic service was recognised by all those who spoke; the Minister of National Defence also announcing that the future of 336 Mira would be with the F-16, Araxos’ existing fleet of 30 aircraft to be split between the two resident units. The service of those pilots who had flown the aircraft since 1975 was acknowledged in a speech by retired Lieutenant General Antonios Iordanou with the Chief of HAFGS, Lieutenant General Evangelos Tournas, delivering the final address before the guests moved outside for the short flying demonstration. This display comprised an airfield attack by a pair of TA-7s, displays by the T-6A Texan and F-16 demo teams and a flypast consisting of single examples of TA-7, Mirage 2000, F-16 and F-4E Phantom with the Corsair pulling up and out in a fitting missing man salute.
Whilst the improvement in operational capability afforded by the transition to the F-16C/D is undeniable it was nonetheless sad to note that the event marked the passing of yet another aviation classic, one that will be sorely missed by the enthusiast community and remembered fondly by those that had the honour to fly and maintain it during a service career with five Hellenic Air Force squadrons, namely 335, 336, 340, 345 and 347 Mira where the type flew a total of 355,000 missions, accumulating 440,000 flying hours – a phenomenal achievement.
“Fly low, hit hard!”
Commanding Officer and personnel of 336 Mira, Hellenic Air Force.
Col (P) Alexandros Marinos, HAFGS Spokesman
Mrs Caroline Makropoulos, Defence Section, British Embassy Athens