The iconic and once prolific McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II now survives with only a handful of the world’s air forces. Global Aviation Resource paid a visit to the Hellenic Air Force’s 117 Pterix Mahis (Combat Wing) at Andravida Air Base, Greece earlier this year to experience first hand the operations of the based 338 “Aris” and 339 “Aias” Mira (squadron). Tom Gibbons writes.
Situated on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula with the Ionian Sea and the Gulf of Patra to the West and the Erymanthos mountain range to the East lies Andravida Air Base, one of the few remaining strongholds of the iconic McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. Andravida saw the arrival of the first Greek F-4s in 1974 under the PEACE ICARUS programme and, more than 40 years later, the aircraft continues to play a key and effective role in Greek defence plans.
Work on construction of Andravida Air Base commenced in 1955 and with these completed in June 1960 the Killini – Andravida Air Detachment was then established. Following these early activities a March 1961 ministerial directive resulted in the formation of 117 Combat Group and the simultaneous disbandment of the Air Detachment. 339 Sqn, then equipped with the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak at Elefsis Air Base, was subsequently assigned to the Combat Group to stand up as the first squadron to operate from the newly constructed facility. Eight years later, in May 1969, the 117 Combat Group was renamed 117 Combat Wing in preparation for the introduction of the F-4E Phantom, and whilst the base at Andravida was barely ten years old it was clear that an upgrade of facilities was required prior to the arrival of the Phantom. Infrastructure was reconstructed, new maintenance and accommodation facilities were added and 339 Sqn relocated to 116 CW at nearby Araxos whilst work was in progress. By early 1974 work had progressed to a stage where the base was ready to accept the new aircraft and in April 1974 the first F-4E landed at Andravida, with deliveries being successfully completed by the end of the year. Integration of the F-4E into Hellenic Air Force service continued apace and at Andravida 339 Sqn made a return to be joined by 338 Sqn that stood up as a combat ready unit in 1975. Both squadrons initially operated in the Fighter Bomber and Interception roles until 1982 when 338 Sqn assumed the primary Air-to-Ground role with the title of Moira Dioxeos Vomvardismou (Pursuit Bombing Squadron) whilst 339 Sqn became the Interceptor unit with the title Moira Pantos Kairou (All Weather Squadron). The F-4E has been a permanent fixture ever since, with the original aircraft undergoing upgrades to arrive at the F-4E AUP (Avionic Update programme) standard that soldiers on in service today.
Originally supplied to the Hellenic Air Force under the PEACE ICARUS programme, the Phantom has served Greece in both fighter and reconnaissance versions with today’s surviving examples of the former located at Andravida with 117 Combat Wing (CW) and the reconnaissance RF-4E variants serving with 110 CW, 348 Squadron “Eyes” at Larissa. In addition to the originally supplied PEACE ICARUS aircraft, Greece was supplied with an additional small number (28) of ex-USAF F-4Es between August and November 1991 under the South-Eastern Regional Agreement (SRA). The arrival of these additional aircraft saw some redistribution within the F-4 fleets with the SRA aircraft being allocated to 338 Sqn and a reshuffling of 110 CW (Larissa) aircraft between 339 and 337 Sqn before the consolidation of the F-4E at Andravida and the RF-4E at Larissa.
A little over 20 years after delivery of the first F-4s to Andravida a contract was placed for the upgrade of 38 aircraft (eventual number of upgraded aircraft was reduced to 35 due to airframe losses since contract signature) with the then Daimler-Benz Aerospace Company (later EADS Military Aircraft) under the auspices of the F-4E Avionics Upgrade Programme (AUP). This was to be an ambitious and challenging piece of work carried out to enhance the capabilities of the Phantom and to maintain the effectiveness of the weapons system into the 21st Century. The programme was dubbed Peace Icarus 2000 and the first upgraded aircraft took to the air on 28 April 1999 at Manching, Germany, with the first locally (Hellenic Aircraft Industry) modified aircraft making its maiden flight in March 2002.
The AUP updates to the Phantom aircraft were complex and resulted in an all-new avionic system (hardware) featuring a core MIL Standard 1553 Databus with integration of upgraded AN/APG-65 RADAR, mission computer, armament control system, navigation system (including GPS and INS), communication system, TACAN, IFF RADAR altimeter (RADALT), data transfer and video recording systems. A comprehensive upgrade of the associated equipment and mission software ensured that the introduction of this all-new avionic suite brought an increased workload for crews. In order to ease the transition and ensure that the Phantom cockpit became a more ergonomic and logical working environment a redesigned Human Machine Interface (HMI) was introduced, featuring Hands On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS), multi-function colour displays, improved Head-Up Display (HUD) and an enhanced audio warning system. When brought together as an integrated package these avionic improvements, coupled with the integration of an advanced weapons suite, have ensured that an entirely different and more capable F-4 was returned to the Hellenic Air Force post-upgrade.
GAR took the opportunity to speak to both squadron commanders to exchange views on the aircraft and also to hear an operator’s perspective on this second generation combat aircraft and its operation in Hellenic Air Force service. Before discussing operation of the F-4 in Hellenic AF service, GAR was keen to pose the question of how this two crew second generation aircraft fares in an increasingly single seat, fourth/fifth generation-dominated environment – was this seen as an advantage or disadvantage when operating against more modern single seat aircraft types?
HAF: “Like all things I believe it has both advantages and disadvantages. But as we all see everything is changing so rapidly with more and more information, the operational environment is no exception in that fact. All modern aircrafts [sic] are equipped with state of the art avionics but the true limiting factor in all these is the human factor. In my opinion no matter how well trained you are a single mind cannot interpret all these information [sic], so two minds are better than one and this concept is not new [sic]. Modern aircraft (F-15E, SU-34, SU-30, F-16I) designed for today’s demanding combat environment are two seaters and highly successful.”
Training for the prospective F-4 pilot or co-pilot (the “Greek system” does not feature WSOs) commences following completion of their operational training in Kalamata. The new officers (Second Lieutenants) arrive at 117 CW with training undertaken at the Conversion Unit (SMET). For approximately the next eight months the student F-4 crews attend ground and flying courses emerging as qualified co-pilots on successful completion of training. The “Guy in the Back” knows the aircraft systems and also how to fly the aircraft, all aircraft being ‘twin-stick’; he also possesses an instrument rating and can expect to spend an additional four months working hard on their respective squadron to achieve “Combat Ready” status. Following an apprenticeship of about four years in the back seat he returns to the SMET, this time for pilot training that takes up to a year. A pilot can expect to become “Combat Ready” in six months following training at the SMET but this is not the end of the line as specific advanced training takes place on the squadrons. Using the training that is conducted on 338 Sqn as an example, the newly qualified airman can expect to encounter specialised fields such as those for Laser Guided Bombs (LGB), Autonomous Free-flight Dispenser System (AFDS) and the use of the Airborne Laser Designator (LITENING II) pod. Back at the SMET, additional training tasks include refresher training for those airmen returning to the aircraft following a spell of duty that has taken them away from flying for a period of time circa one year, although these occasions are the exception. Annual flying hours for the F-4 crews vary from about 60 to 100 hours depending on their experience and there is a conscious effort to try to ensure that the less experienced pilots fly more often.
Training at 117 CW is not entirely aircrew focused, with the all-important technical personnel training taking place. Typically all groundcrew assigned to the F-4 undertake a four week course at the F-4 specific technical conversion unit where they take the first steps to acquiring an intimate knowledge of the Phantom and its systems. Following graduation, the crews then spend circa three months carrying out On Job Training (OJT) during which they are evaluated and, if they meet the rigorous standard required, then become qualified F-4 groundchiefs [sic].
Daily flight operations take place at a relatively high tempo and include almost 15 sorties per squadron and about five sorties for the SMET with night operations usually occurring at least once per week with a circa three-hour interval between day and night operations. As with the majority of air arms worldwide there is a drive to ensure that the training carried out is as realistic as possible with both squadrons operating both independently and in mixed training operations with scenarios ranging from simple 2v2 and Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM) to larger and more complex exercises featuring participation from all types in Hellenic Air Force service.
Over the years the roles of the HAF F-4 units have developed and matured with the 117 CW squadrons each having a dedicated function. 338 Sqn has a primary Air-to-Ground role utilising conventional and precision-guided munitions, with a secondary interceptor role. 339 Sqn meanwhile has an Air-to-Air role employing the AIM-120 AMRAAM and a secondary conventional bombing role. The SMET is tasked with the training of new pilots and co-pilots. Whilst these roles are specific to each squadron, both are capable of employing core elements such as conventional bombing, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapon employment, Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM) and low-level flying etc. with training taking place in the readily available areas adjacent to the base at Andravida. In general terms, the area to the West sees 339 Sqn exploiting the airspace over the Ionian Sea and Gulf of Patra for A2A training whilst 338 Sqn head East to use the rugged and mountainous terrain to hone their skills in the low-level and A2G arenas. Dependent on the configuration of the aircraft for the specific training task, sortie duration can vary from a minimum of 55 min through to a maximum of about two hours. Overall the typical sortie lasts an average of about 1.5 hrs.
The upgrade of the F-4E to AUP standard has seen a corresponding increase in the range of weapons employed by 117 CW. 338 Sqn in the A2G role employs weapons ranging from training munitions such as the BDU-33 to conventional bombs in the Mk.80 series of LGBs, GBUs, CBUs and the AGM-65 Maverick missile, the all-important precision guidance for these stores being provided via the LANTIRN and LITENING II pods. To meet the A2A element of the mission the squadron utilises the AIM-120 AMRAAM and the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. 339 Sqn on the other hand primarily employs the AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range missile and the AIM-9 Sidewinder with training munitions and non-precision guided conventional bombs being used to meet the secondary A2G commitment. The conduct of live weapon training is dependant upon orders from the Air Force Chief of Staff but in general the wing has the opportunity to train with live ammo [sic] at least five or six times a year.
In addition to local and HAF-wide training, 117 CW plays its part in selected international exercises and Hellenic AF F-4s have participated in the NATO Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP) and in Exercise Bright Star in Egypt with aspirations to continue to participate in future international exercises. In the week preceding GAR’s visit 117 CW participated in and hosted Exercise INIOHOS 2015, a HAF training exercise that has been taking place for the past 20 years. Incorporating the full range of Hellenic Air Force combat aircraft, INIOHOS 2015 was the first time the Hellenic Air Force had chosen to integrate a foreign Air Force into the training exercise and featured the integration of a number of Israeli DF F-16I ‘Sufa’ squadrons that had deployed to Andravida for two weeks of valuable and intensive training.
Working hard to ensure that there are always airframes available to meet the operational tasking are the highly skilled and dedicated maintenance teams. Each squadron possesses its own support staff, flight line crews, inspectors, weapon crews and equipment to satisfy first level maintenance requirements where faulty or malfunctioned items are diagnosed and replaced ‘on-aircraft’. Second level maintenance, where the overhaul of certain specific components and inspections to a greater depth take place is centralised for both squadrons. For the heavy overhaul and deep maintenance tasks the aircraft are flown to Hellenic Aerospace Industries at Tanagra.
Despite the exhaustive maintenance programmes in place and the continued efforts to maintain the capabilities of the aircraft, the effective operation of an ageing (40 years in active duty) second generation combat aircraft presents a number of challenges given a number of unique technical support requirements. Despite this and thanks to the aircraft’s reliability, availability is high; there is of course some inevitable obsolete system technology (i.e. hydraulic piping), which can result in the units experiencing some ground aborts. Despite these on going issues and thanks to the highly experienced technical support personnel, most problems can be quickly rectified with the aircraft serviceable and available for tasking later the same day.
Throughout GAR’s visit it was clear that the aircraft is still thought of as extremely effective and capable, whilst acknowledging the advantages held by the likes of the Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and the latest Block F-16s. The crews of 117 CW continue to work to their strengths and are firm believers that the importance of smart tactics runs parallel to the use of smart weapons and highly agile platforms. Under the PI 2000 Program the service life of the Hellenic Air Force F-4E AUP is currently extended to 2018 and when considering national economic difficulties procurement of a replacement may be some way off. These factors, coupled with the type’s availability and reliability, lead the Hellenic Air Force to believe that McDonnell Douglas’ finest will continue in service beyond 2018.
With thanks to:
Col (P) Alexandros Marinos, Hellenic Air Force General Staff Office/Press & Information Directorate
Commanding Officer 338 Squadron, Lt Col Theodoros Aivaliotis
Commanding Officer 339 Squadron, Lt. Col Christos Togias
Officers, men and women of 117 Combat Wing
Mrs Caroline Makropoulos, British Embassy Athens