NARRATIVE BY & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE
The Hellenic Air Force (HAF) Elefsis air base , located 15 kilometres west of Athens, is home to the 112 Ptergia Mahkis (112 Combat Wing) under the Diikissi Aeroporikion Mataforn (Air Transport Command) and is the largest ( by manning levels) and most diverse airfield in the HAF. The emblem of the Wing proudly quotes Greek dramatist Menander (342 -292 BC) “Everything is achieved through diligence”. In total there are six different units at Elefsis with a total of nine aviation assets ranging from cargo, VIP (Very Important Person) transport, Airborne Early Warning (AEW), CSAR ( Combat Search And Rescue) and fire suppression. Here we will look at these squadrons and their importance to the Hellenic Air Force and the wider Greek public.
Commander for the whole of 112 Combat Wing is Brigadier General Tzallas and he explained the mission of the Wing;
“To sustain a high level of effectiveness and readiness through the appropriate structures, personnel training, maintenance of the available assets and available equipment, in order to assume and conduct all assigned tasks successfully, including execution of all air operations and handling of emergency situations, according to plans and orders in effect, whenever required.”
To achieve this training is of course a priority, as the Wings Force Protection Director, Colonel Peros explained, “Training of personnel takes place at Elefsis, our wing has a high degree of autonomy regarding the training of the flight crews, engineers, ground personnel and almost everyone that serves in the base, with initial and follow up programmes. It’s worth mentioning that the initial training for flight crew members once they have left Kalamata ( The HAF’s primary aircrew training station) and arrived here and been assigned an aircraft type that it is conducted at the Operational Conversion Unit on the squadron that operates that type of aircraft and speciality”. The OCU in question uses aircraft on that squadron and the pilot/crew usually becomes qualified in 4-6 years.
For the Greek population one of the most visual aircraft are operated by 352 Mira Metaforas Ypsilon Prospon (VIP Transport Squadron) as this is the unit that is used to transport heads of state and other Greek government officials so will be commonly seen on TV and in the press. The aircraft are also used for repatriation missions for citizens of Greece overseas for things like medical emergencies.
The unit Deputy Commander Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Ioannis Giannakakis certainly cuts an impressive figure, and so he should with a spectacular career in the HAF. After completing over 2000 hours on the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II with 337 Mira, he had tours with JFC (Joint Force Centre) Naples and the Combined Operations Centre at Larissa in Northern Greece. His role in Naples was particularly rewarding as he was AOC (Air Officer Commanding) Operations manager for Operation Unified Protector controlling the aviation elements over Libya. After this he became Aide De Camp for the President of Democracy giving advice of military matters involving the HAF.
352 Squadron operates three aircraft of two types, a Gulfstream V delivered in March 2003 backed up by two Embraer 135s, one of which is the ERJ-135LR for longer range missions, these two aircraft arriving from Brazil at the beginning of January 2000.
Lt Col Giannakakis told Pixelsnipers what its like to fly the Embraer after a career in fighter jets, “Considering the ERJ, I think it’s right on time for me. When I was young, with my blood running faster in my veins, the F4 was the best choice… Fully manual, difficult to handle, dangerous. .. A real fighter! Now, getting closer to my 50’s’ safety and comfort is my aim… Fully automatic, safe and reliable, the ERJ is the choice…. Travelling all over the world is an additional benefit!
354 Mira Taktikon Metaforon (MTM -Tactical Transport Squadron) ‘Pegasos’ has eight Alenia Aermacchi C-27J Spartan on strength. Originally twelve were ordered in January 2003 but four were cancelled and delivered to Mexico. Delivered from August 2005 these are one of the more common HAF aircraft seen outside of Greece due to its tactical airlift role. The secondary missions in medical evacuation and maritime patrol are more prevalent in the current climate, especially with the recent influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict arriving on Greek controlled coastal areas. The C-27J is of course a success story for the Italian manufacturer and is heavily utilised by 354 Mira not only for local missions, but also a wider role within NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), The European Union and the United Nations to name but three.
355 MTM ‘Ifestos’ is equipped with the survivors of twenty Canadair CL-215 that have served with the Greek Air Force. In use for 40 years, the first of four arrived in December 1975. Two more arrived in 1977, the order completed in 1990 making 16. Four more were added in 1997 when Greece purchased second hand examples from Serbia which had served with the Yugoslavian Air Force. During the fire-fighting season, typically Spring and Summer, the units aircraft are deployed to strategic locations to combat the fire risk, these bases being Andravida (three aircraft) , Nea Anchialos (two aircraft) and Samos (two aircraft). The rest of the fleet is at readiness or in maintenance in Elefsis during this period. To highlight the dangerous work entailed in firefighting with the CL-215, on June 26th 2016 at 11:09am, aircraft 1111 was damaged beyond repair when the number one engine caught fire during a mission in the northwest Attica region near Dervenochoria. After performing an emergency landing the crew escaped before fire consumed the aircraft.
Pixelsnipers Asked Lt George Badikos to explain the attraction of flying the CL-215 in such a dangerous mission, “It’s quite awkward to answer this kind of question as I am young to fire-fighting but I will try to give an objective view. After 350 hours flight training at Tatoi (Cessna T-41D) and Kalamata (Beechcraft T-6A and Rockwell T-2 Buckeye), I chose to begin a career in fire-fighting at Elefsis with the old but trusted CL-215s. I knew and understood the age of the aircraft may be a drawback, but the role and contribution of it in the HAF and the Greek state is enormous.”
“The position of Greece in the southeast of Europe declares high temperatures for more than half of the year, so fires and the destruction from them are very common and costly in money, but also human lives. That gives us the push we need to keep on going to complete the difficult and dangerous task of fire-fighting, a role so dangerous, as you have to take a plane to the open seas as there are no big lakes in Greece to pick up water. We then arrive at the fire, which more commonly than not, has uneven terrain and we drop to below 100 feet in order to save anything from forest, trees and houses, as well as the fire-fighters on the ground that are in lethal danger. After almost 7 years and 800 hours, I have flown over the entirety of the Greek terrain and picked up water from the sea, operated on almost 300 fire fighting missions and I am a year away from becoming a first pilot from co-pilot. Even though I have not flown a “JET” fighter, our last piston engine “FIRE” fighter fills me with confidence and I am proud of doing this extreme sport (job!). The experience I have of these extreme flights, the very low water drops and the feeling of picking up water from the Aegean is not compared to a thousand hours on fighter jets! So we keep on hoping for safe water landings and less fires!”
Greece also deploys the CL-215, as well as the more modern CL-415s from 383 MIEA at Thessalonki-Makedonia, to overseas countries for fire suppression duties including France, Turkey and Israel. In Greece itself it was only recently in August 2007 that the Peloponnesus forest fires were recognised as the worst in modern history, and with which 355 MTM was in the thick of it. Crews still around from that period have a valuable input to the new aircrew recruits, of which there are 2-4 annually.
The backbone of the HAF transport fleet is the mix of Lockheed C-130B and C-130H Hercules belonging to 356 MTM ‘Iraklis’ . The C-130H fleet, of which the survivors ( two were written off in February 1991 and December 1997) began an Avionics Upgrade Programme (AUP) in conjunction with L-3 communication subsidiary SPAR Aerospace Limited and Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI) in 2005 which was also incorporated into the C-130B fleet, five of which were recovered from USAF (United States Air Force) stock in 1992. The upgrade was completed in 2010 with updates to the GPS Inertial navigation, auto-pilot, weather radar and digital engine control system. The Electronic Warfare (EW) had its system improved incorporating a new Missile Proximity Warning System ( MPWS) and self protection suite. The electronics received an upgrade and a partial glass cockpit added. Completing the AUP was TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), EFIS (Electronic Flight Information System) and an FMS (Flight Management System). Of the fifteen C-130s to receive the AUP all but three were completed with HAI in Tanagra north of Athens.
As with most countries committed to UN and NATO operations, the HAF transport fleet and particularly the C-130s are heavy utilised in humanitarian operations. Recent involvement has been in Pakistan for flood relief, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the horrific event in Beslan and the Turkish earthquake, proving that even though Greece and Turkey have had difficulties with each other to say the least, that in the time of need the Greek government and HAF are ready to respond to any country in need. Greece’s NATO obligations means that three aircraft have to be ready for DELTA force missions and one extra for NRF ( NATOs Response Force) with 5 days notice. Two of the C-130H Hercules are Electronic Warfare (EW) versions (741 and 747).
358 Mira Erevnas Diasosis ( MED – Search and Rescue (SAR) Squadron) covers not only SAR missions but also a VIP flight equipped with Bell 212s. These three blue and white smart looking helicopters back up 352 Mira by performing local flights. Though headquartered at Elefsis the unit finds itself deployed to six other bases – Larissa, Limnos, Tanagra, Souda, Araxos and Nea Ankhialos. Principle equipment is the Agusta-Bell 205A-1 though they also have three Agusta A.109E helicopters for the Medevac role. The majority of SAR missions are dedicated to daylight operations leaving the Airbus Helicopters AS.332C-1 Super Pumas from 384 MED for the more demanding night and bad weather roles. The squadron name is ‘Faethon’, and as with all HAF units is a Greek God, though spelt Phaethon in English, meaning ‘Shining’.
Delivered from 1970 the AB.205s has been in service a long time and at least 13 remain in use, including two transferred from the Hellenic Army. One of the AB.205s was in the news very recently when on November 10th 2016 the HAF had to transport a 33 year old patient of Chinese descent from the freighter ‘Hoegh Shanghai’ located 45 nautical miles off Kalamata.
As mentioned, 384 MED operates the Super Puma for the more demanding SAR tasks including Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), special operations and Medevac flights day and night no matter what the weather conditions. The unit has 12 on strength, which 4 of them are assigned to Hellenic Coastguard duties. The aircraft are heavily deployed to areas where they are required and are only at Elefsis for maintenance and training.
All 112 CW SAR missions are in co-operation with the SAR Joint Coordination Centre, which has responsibility for SAR operations within Athinai (Athens) FIR (Flight Instrumentation Rules) as Greece has full jurisdiction from the International Civil Aviation Organisations (ICAO) provisions.
The final squadron with aircraft at Elefsis is not actually part of 112 CW but hosted by them. 380 Mira Aeroporiko Systems Enaeriou Elenchou & Epitiris ( MASEPE – Airborne Early Warning and Control Squadron) operates the Embrear EMB-145H in the AEW & C role. Purchased in 1999 from the Embraer, Ericsson and Thales joint venture, with the Erieye system very prominently held on the back of the business jet, the jets arrived in 2004 but were not accepted until February 2009. To get the HAF ready for this new role two SAAB S.100B Argus, using the similar system, were leased from the Swedish Air Force between mid 2001 to December 2003.
CA asked Captain Ilias Tsitsios of 380 MASEPE how much the Embraer has improved interoperability in the air with the various HAF combat units. “The EMB-145H AEW&C is a platform capable of connecting via voice (UHF, VHF, and HF) and data link (Link 11 and Link 16) with naval, ground based and airborne assets. Therefore, it provides a common ‘reference datum’ via which assets with different operational capabilities can be connected in order to exchange real time vital information in secured/redundant networks. As a result, the EMB-145H AEW&C has improved the interoperability with regard to volume of data exchanged, time, range and number of participants”
So how busy is the 112 CW? Statistics gathered from the Wing indicates that between 2011 and 2015 there were 28,144 missions involving 47,794 sorties incorporating 64, 370 flight hours, truly impressive figures. So perhaps the last word should go to Colonel Peros as the Force Protection Director; “The specificity, the diversity, the wide range and the polymorphic nature of our missions, constitute challenges that trigger our mind, lead our actions and guide us to the fulfilment of our assigned tasks”
With thanks to Brigadier General Tzallas, Colonel Peros, Caroline Makropoulos, Sgt Strantzas, Lt Col Ioannis Giannakakis, and Lt George Badikos