Hellenic RF-4E Retirement

Larissa Air Base, Greece

For 41 years, the Hellenic Air Force has operated the RF-4E Phantom II in the Tactical Reconnaissance role from Larissa Air Base, Greece; but May 2017 marked the sad and emotional end to the much loved Spook as the Hellenic Air Force withdrew them from active service. 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) hosted a Spottersday on Thursday 4th May to see out the last of the RF-4E operations, followed by a public retirement ceremony on Friday 5th May which also saw a cessation of operations by 348 TRS after 64 years. Aviation in Action was present to witness the last of the iconic Recce Phantoms say goodbye to European skies.

348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS)

Undoubtedly 348 TRS nicknamed ‘Eyes’ is up there with the oldest and most historical squadrons within the Hellenic Air Force. Since its formation, it has only ever been responsible for the primary role of photo reconnaissance missions providing intelligence for the Hellenic Military.

Its origins can be accurately traced back to 1953 when a flight was stood up under the command of the 112th Combat Wing at Elefsina Air Base. At the time the then ‘Royal’ Hellenic Air Force was taking delivery of F-84G Thunderjet’s, of which at least 9 were allocated to the newly stood up flight. These Republic F-84G aircraft were able to carry a specially modified 230-gallon Fletcher tank under the left wing, which was fitted with a compartment at the front capable of housing a downward facing camera. This modification designated the aircraft an F-84G (R) model, ‘R’ representing the reconnaissance role which was quickly earned late in 1953 after completing the first operational sortie over Bulgarian airspace. Following the success of those initial missions, it prompted Air Force leadership to stand up 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Flight (TRF) under the eye of the 112th Combat Wing. Its primary role was determined to be visual observation and photographic gathering to all three branches of the Hellenic Armed Forces.

With Europe heading into the cold war period and Greece’s bordering nations pledging their allegiance to the Soviet Union, the need for Photo Reconnaissance was as great as ever. The F-84G’s flew photo flights over Albania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia to help provide NATO with better intelligence and a situational awareness of Soviet movement. This did become riskier as time progressed however, as Bulgaria positioned MiG-15’s in the Southern sectors of its country as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) interceptors. Their presence was a reaction from the Soviet Bloc to prevent the Greeks and Turkish from gathering photographs and intelligence to benefit NATO. As a result, 348 TRF relocated to their long term home at the 110th Combat Wing, Larissa Air Base in 1954 bringing them closer to their area of operations. Soon after taking residence at Larissa, in early 1955 the squadron begun to take delivery of Lockheed RT-33A Silver Star’s; a derivative of the T-33A Shooting Star jet trainer, manufactured specifically for the role of photo reconnaissance. The purchase saw the phased replacement of F-84G’s which were not withdrawn immediately, incidentally allowing a period for pilots to convert.  Once all F-84G current pilots had transitioned to the RT-33A, the Thunderjet was inevitably withdrawn.

The Silver Star was designed so the nose section was capable of housing all photographic equipment required, whilst being insulated and boasting thermostatic control to assist with reliable operation. The nose cone was divided into three sections enabling greater coverage on the forward, left, right and vertical axis. Following flight testing at Larissa, whilst not as powerful or manoeuvrable as the F-84G, the RT-33A was deemed stable in flight and far superior in terms of it photographic output. With this news, Air Force Headquarters issued the order to make 348 TRF an official Squadron subordinate to the 110th Combat Wing; thus on the 27th April 1955, 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was formed eventually receiving a total of twenty two RT-33A’s. Their life with 348 TRS with the advance of technology was short lived, and after only two years the Hellenic Air Force had purchased Republic RF-84F Thunderstreak’s introducing them to fly alongside the RT-33’s. Like with the previous change of mount, there was a transitional period where both types were jointly operated, only this time the RT-33A’s were not withdrawn from service, they were handed over to the 112th Combat Wing for valuable target towing and liaison roles.

Becoming the third aircraft type serving with the unit within four years, the Thunderstreak marked the latest leap forwards for photo reconnaissance in the Hellenic Air Force. Taking delivery of 39 examples, pilots commented that the RF-84F was incomparably superior to the RT-33 Silver Star. With the aircraft based on a fighter bomber the designers moved an air intake and four Browning M3 guns from the nose section to the wing roots, therefore redesigning the nose to enable a place to locate the camera equipment. Much like the F-84G Thunderjet though, pilots felt it was underpowered and not the most manoeuvrable. For a period of 9 years up to 1964, the same type of operational missions were undertaken North of the Greek border into the Soviet Bloc countries with the ongoing risk of interception from MiG-15’s, but the national focus soon switched to Cyprus and the conflict over the Island with Turkey. 348 TRS was given the order to send 6 of their aircraft at short notice down to the 115th Combat Wing at Souda, Crete to fly operational sorties over and around Cyprus to monitor Turkish military movement. In the early stages, not only did the Greeks have the Turkish to contend with, but the Royal Air Force would regularly send up Lightning F.3’s on QRA out of RAF Akrotiri to try and scupper the photo runs over the Island. The Thunderstreak managed to outlast any of the previous mounts racking up 35 years on the squadron, but in 1978 a new era dawned for 348 TRS with the introduction of the iconic RF-4E Phantom II. This didn’t mean the end for the Thunderstreak as it wasn’t due to be withdrawn, quite the opposite as 348 TRS split into two sub-squadrons, 348Sq RF-84F and 348Sq RF-4E. Both had their own personnel and support structure so they could operate independently of each other, but eventually after 10 years both flights were finally merged before the Thunderstreak was sadly withdrawn from use in 1991.

 

The Hellenic RF-4E Recce Phantom

1974 saw the Hellenic Air Force purchase their first F-4E Phantom airframes under the Peace Icarus II program enabling an advance of technology, mentality, tactics and operations. This step forward for the Greek’s twinned with rising Turkish provocation in the Aegean region pushed through a second order of 24x F-4E’s and an additional 6x RF-4E’s. Late in 1978, the first RF-4E Recce Phantom arrived in Larissa following a three day trip from St. Louis in the States marking the beginning of a new era in photo reconnaissance for the Air Force. By the summer of 1979, all six newly purchased RF-4E’s had arrived at Larissa with a further two airframes acquired under the Military Assistance Program, taking the total number of Phantoms on strength to 8. In the early days of the new era, Headquarters orders were to exploit the full potential of these new aircraft resulting in highly intense flying activity. A normal scenario for crews on 348 TRS was two daily sorties and sometimes a third during dark hours. The maintainers had to keep a 95% combat readiness level on the aircraft which was accomplished through long a gruelling work. A typical example of such would be a full day of work on an unserviceable jet, working up to midnight before engine tests and eventually returning it to operational duty the following day. In 1980 after an evaluation from the Tactical Air Force, the RF-4E sub squadron was declared fully operational and capable of to operate for the benefit of the entire Hellenic Military.

As of 1991 following the loss of three RF-4E Phantoms’ to accidents and the inevitable retirement of the RF-84F, the Hellenic Air Force proceeded to build on the number of Phantom’s needed to fulfil the Recce role. Although the maintenance staff kept an incredibly high percentage of combat ready aircraft from the five remaining airframes, the need to increase the number of jets was evident thus resulting in the Hellenic Air Force purchasing 27 second hand RF-4E’s from the Luftwaffe. With these airframes rolling off the production line in 1968, they all required inspection and upgrades which saw them arrive at the Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI) facility at Tanagra Air Base to go through this process. Of the 27 airframes, 20 jets were welcomed onto 348 TRS with the other 7 being used for spare parts.

The main purpose the RF-4E served for the Hellenic Air Force was information gathering via Reconnaissance missions. All branches of the Hellenic Military believed that to successfully conduct efficient warfare, sufficient information must be available on targets to enable a measured assessment on enemy defences resulting in the potential undertaking of precise strike missions. As a result of this desired information, the Hellenic RF-4E Phantom’s undertook a more tactical approach to reconnaissance missions to successfully gain the required intelligence. The tactical approach posed more defined roles for the 348 TRS crews, roles such as:

  • Low level flying – to remain undetected from enemy early warning systems.
  • Vertical Photo Passes (stereoscopic photo’s) – flying a profile that resulted in wide angle photo’s that covered large areas. This allowed for high quality photo’s to see clear pictures identifying the conditions of targets.
  • Stand Off Reconnaissance – This meant the aircraft could simply stand-off from the enemy whilst still acquiring the photographic intelligence without having to approach dangerous areas of conflict. This was achieved through the quality of the photographic equipment.
  • Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) – in the early 2000’s, the RF-4E Phantom evolved into an ELINT platform where specific sensors fitted within underwing pods gave the Phantom the ability to intercept and analyse data from radiofrequency (RF) emissions transmitted by land-based radars and weapon systems.
  • Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) – very similar to ELINT capabilities, the underwing pods carried by the RF-4E could intercept signals from up to 500 miles away giving an accurate picture of the enemy’s Electronic order of battle.

To help gather information and complete reconnaissance missions, the RF-4E could be fitted with a number of different camera’s and pods useful for specific roles. Without doubt the most powerful and heavily used was the enormous KS-172A Long Rang Oblique Photography (LOROP) system. With a 66 inch lens, it provided high-resolution images at ranges of up to 60 miles in fair weather conditions. Unique in terms of its operation, the camera had the ability to rotate during flight on its vertical and lateral axis which led to taking accurate photographs from altitudes of up to 40,000 feet. The quality of the system offered accuracy in detail of up to 50cm ground coverage when the film went to print. The KS-172A was widely appreciated by the crews as it allowed them to fly close to their targets at high altitude and obtain images with a reduced amount of threat from the enemy. On the other hand, when undertaking low level flying sorties the Phantom would be fitted with the KA-56E Low Altitude Panoramic Camera allowing for a greater field of view to be captured at high speeds. This system was perfect for when the Phantom had to remain undetected by radar at low level whilst still taking photos, meaning the aircraft could get in and out at high speed and back to base before the enemy could respond. Increasing the RF-4E’s capabilities was the use of an AAD-5 infrared system, allowing the aircraft to operate both during the day and at night. With endless leaps in technology during the early 2000’s, the Hellenic Air Force did try and introduce a new digital camera system: the KS-127EO. Unfortunately however, this program failed due to incompatibility between the aircraft and the camera. Also as a result of technology where the RF-4E took on SIGINT and ELINT roles, the French built ASTAC Pod hung on the fuselage centreline solely gave the aircraft these modern capabilities.

 

Retirement Event

After 41 years gracing the skies of Greece, the 4th and 5th May 2017 saw the last flying days of the RF-4E Phantom as the Hellenic Air Force and Larissa Air Base opened their doors to enthusiasts and the public. It was announced fairly early after the news of their withdrawal, that a retirement ceremony would be held along with a Spottersday to give the Phantom the send-off it deserved, this of course created huge interest from the aviation community with over 600 enthusiasts applying for a place. Thursday 4th May saw the last official day of flying operations for both 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and the Hellenic RF-4E alike, this day was to be the Spottersday. Beginning at 9am, Larissa opened their gates to all approved spotters on the list where they would play witness to two operational sorties from the Phantoms, along with the routine operations from the F-16’s of 337 Mira also based at Larissa. Only three RF-4E’s remained airworthy up to the final days, all of which flew twice during the day. One of the RF-4’s (69-7450) wore the special green and yellow ‘Eyes’ scheme carried for a couple of years, a second Phantom (77-1765) carried its standard operational colours and lastly, freshly painted for the retirement ceremony, RF-4E 69-5499 appeared in a black and orange scheme celebrating the squadron with the motto – ‘The end of the film’. The Belgian Air Force made a brief appearance at the Spottersday with a pair of F-16AM Fighting Falcons from 1 Squadron (Stingers) based at Florennes, and the Royal Air Force had planned to attend with a pair of Tornado GR.4’s fresh from operations in Cyprus, but unfortunately a bird strike on take-off put paid to their appearance. Appearing from the Hellenic Air Force itself was a missed approach by a Mirage 2000-5 from 331 Mira at Tanagra and the more commonly seen Demo Teams of the F-16 Zeus and the T-6A Texan Daedalus. Following the Spottersday, Friday 4 May was the official retirement ceremony, a brief last chance to see an airworthy RF-4 in European skies. The morning began with the official ceremony where speeches, prayers and blessings were given followed by a formation flypast of all three Phantoms plus an F-16 and Mirage 2000, with the latter breaking off allowing the RF-4’s to circuit round for a final break overhead before landing and therefore ending the era of RF-4E’s for the Hellenic Air Force.

 

What the Future Holds

Following the retirement of the RF-4E, film based aerial reconnaissance has come to its end for the Hellenic Air Force. The immediate and modern replacement has seen the role taken on by 335 Mira and their Lockheed Martin Block 50 F-16’s operating the Goodrich DB-110 pod. The DB-110 is a digital pod capable of operating both day and night, working on stabilised dual axis projecting real-time tactical reconnaissance information. In addition to this, the ELINT role has been handed to the Mirage 2000C’s at Tanagra who will step up to fill the gap following the RF-4’s bowing out.

 

We would like to express our gratitude to the Hellenic Air Force for putting on this event to mark a sad moment in European aviation history. The legendary RF-4E Phantom may be gone, but she will most definitely not be forgotten….. Farewell old girl.

 

Aviation in Action would like to extend our thanks to the following for their assistance in making this article possible:

  • The Hellenic Air Force
  • 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
  • All crew and personnel at Larissa Air Base
  • Caroline Makropoulos – Defence Attaché, British Embassy, Athens

 

 

Credits: Article and photography by Aaron Paxton