On May 5, 2017, the Hellenic Air Force retired its final three RF-4E ‘Recce’ Phantom II aircraft during a ceremony at their home base of Larissa. The retirement brings to an end the use of the ‘Recce’ Phantom in Europe, as final RF-4E Phantom Squadron – 348 MTA – bows out after 64 years of continuous operation.
Although the F-4E will continue to serve with the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) under 117 Combat Wing at Andravida Air Base – operated by 338 Mira (Fighter Bomber Squadron) and 339 Mira (All Weather Squadron) – it was an emotional two days at Larissa Air Base with the remaining active green camo tactical reconnaissance ‘spooky’ jets saying goodbye with a spotters day on May 4 and a public day on May 5.
Formed back in 1953, 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Flight (TRF) were initially a part of 335 Mira at Elefsina Air Base under 112 Combat Wing command. Equipped with modified Republic F-84G Thunderjets fitted with a camera in the front of one of the tip tanks, it gave the Hellenic Air Force an information gathering and reconnaissance mission ability not previously held.
A year later in the summer of 1954, and then equipped with new Lockheed RT-33A Shooting Star, 348 Squadron was formed and relocated to Larissa Air Base under the command of 110 Combat Wing. The RT-33A had evolved from the T-33A already in use with the United States Air Force and other NATO countries. In order to carry the larger, more modern and sophisticated imaging devices the conversion to RT-33A involved replacing the nose of the aircraft and removal of the rear seat.
In 1956, 348 TRF received the new RF-84F Thunderflash becoming one of the first NATO countries to receive the type – the reconnaissance version of their previous steed, the F-84G. The RF-84F had the new swept wing compared unlike its straight-wing F-84G counterpart and was fitted with three cameras producing high-resolution images that could be used separately or combined to give overlapping pictures allowing them to cover wider distances. The Thunderflash was also armed with .50 cal machine guns thereby giving itself a basic self-defence option.
The RT-33A aircraft were subsequently given to the Armeé de l’air whilst the RF-84F remained the forces sole reconnaissance type for 22 years until 1978, when the country received their first RF-4E Phantom II’s. Three RF-84F aircraft remained in action with the HAF until March 1991 when they were withdrawn after some 34 years of frontline active service. The Hellenic Air Force were also the last operators of the type in the world!
The new build tandem seat McDonnell Douglas Phantom RF-4Es for the HAF were based on the already well known supersonic F-4 Fighter Bombers in service with various military operators throughout the world including the UK, USA, Spain, Japan, Germany and Australia. The F-4’s were powered by two General Electric J79 engines, with exception of Phantoms used by for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in the UK which had Rolls Royce Spey engines fitted. The J79 engines were responsible for a series of world records held by the F-4 including one on August 28, 1961, where a F4H-1F Phantom II averaged 1,452.777 KPH (902.714 miles per hour) over a 3 mile (4.82 km) course flying below 125 feet (38.1 m) at all times! The Phantom is very recognisable at a distance due to the dense smoke trail left in its wake by the hungry J79 engines.
In November of 1978, the first of eight new build McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom II aircraft arrived at Larissa AB direct from the St Louis Factory in the USA – serial number 77-1761. Of the eight RF-4Es delivered, three airframes were sadly lost in the subsequent years of operation – the first production RF-4E frame for the HAF, 77-0357, crashed on December 10th, 1979, followed by its production sister frame 77-0358 which was lost after it crashed into the Tzoumerka Mountains on July 11, 1985. The third loss was that of 77-1761 which crashed into the Sergitsa Sea on the May 7, 1987.
With the impending withdrawal of the last three RF-84s in 1991 and the three RF-4E losses, this left the HAF with just five operational RF-4E aircraft to cover its tactical reconnaissance missions. In 1990, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and ending of the cold war, the newly unified Germany had a surplus of aircraft and offered 27 older (Fiscal Year 69) ex-Luftwaffe RF-4Es to the Hellenic Air Force. These aircraft were subsequently delivered in 1993, with 20 RF-4Es joining 348 Mira at Larissa AFB, and seven being kept for spares and ground instruction.
There were further losses over the years, and with the fleet being reduced annually due to flight hours, spares and its impending withdrawal from service leaving just five operational RF-4E’s with 348 Mira by December 2016. Since then, two more airframes have been retired (69-7496 on December 28th 2016 and 69-7500 on January 26th 2017), leaving just three flying examples to see out the planned retirement celebrations –
69-7450 – This well-photographed aircraft had a special paint scheme applied for the 60th anniversary of 348 Mira.
69-7499 – This aircraft had a special retirement paint scheme applied in the weeks leading up to the type’s retirement.
77-1765 – This was the last remaining original ‘new build’ Hellenic Air Force RF-4E Phantom II still flying, and the second to last RF-4E ever built.
The events at Larissa AB to celebrate the rich history of 348 Mira and the legendary RF-4E took place on the 4th and 5th May 2017. A spotters day took place on Thursday 4th May between 0900 and 1500 which saw 514 of the 602 registered enthusiasts attend the event. As well as photography opportunities, the well organised event cleverly included a well stocked merchandise stall, which saw roaring trade all day selling all manner of 348 Mira and HAF goodies.
With photography positions sited next to the southern taxiway (which is also used as a secondary runway) nearly half the length was available to the enthusiasts to record the proceedings. With an East/West runway configuration (08/26) and a light wind, both runways would be in action throughout the day. The sunlight would initially be down the runway first thing but improve from a photography perspective as the day went on as the sun came around to the South. The biggest concern for photography was heat haze (with a forecast temperature of 28 degrees in Larissa) due to the distance across the concrete taxiway and scrubland to the active runway, and it did indeed prove challenging. There were also a number of disposed HAF aircraft around the area designated as the Spotters day car park which were available to photograph, including F-5s, an F104, T-33 and RF-84 all in various states of disrepair.
The enthusiast event effectively allowed the gathered photographers to view and record the events of an operational day at Larissa and the first launch of the day got under way at 0900 seeing two RF-4Es (77-1765 and 69-7450) power off on the easterly runway followed by four Block 52 Hellenic F-16Cs and a single F-16D (coded 531, 524, 508 & 600 respectively) from the resident 337 ‘Ghost’ Squadron. The Phantoms did one overflight of the airfield prior to the first aircraft (77-1765) landing on the westerly runway whilst 69-7450 performed a go around giving the opportunity of a rare topside pass against a glorious blue sky. Both aircraft then taxied the length of the taxiway pausing to allow the assembled photographers the chance to capture each of them.
Just before 1000 the remaining Recce Phantom 69-7499, freshly painted in a striking black and orange retirement scheme for the aircraft and 348 Squadron, launched to the east. Shortly afterwards two of the F-16’s (F-16C 508 & F-16D 600) that had launched earlier carried out a simulated airfield attack, running in from the North before departing out to the East. A further two F-16Cs (coded 532 & 507) departed to the East but this time both armed with live AMRAAM and IRIS-T missiles, before the morning flight of Vipers recovered and a single F-16D (coded 619) departed to the West. These were shortly followed by 69-7499 landing, which once again paraded down the length of the southern taxiway for the waiting photographers. Two visiting Belgian F-16AMs also arrived (coded FA-57 and FA-97) just after midday to spend the afternoon with 348 MTA and were swiftly followed by a visiting HAF Mirage 2000-5 (coded 505) conducting an overshoot before departing back to 331 Mira Tanagra AB.
The afternoon Phantom launch was a three ship streamed launch led by 69-7499 followed by 69-7450 and finally the last original Greek RF-4E in its Vietnam colour scheme, 77-1765. These were joined by a single 337 Mira F-16C (coded 508) and a Mirage 2000EG in special markings (coded 239) from 332 Mira based at Tanagra AB for a series of practise flypasts for Fridays events. The group was led by the three Phantoms in arrow formation with the F-16 on the outside left wing and Mirage 2000 on the right.
Landing back following this penultimate Phantom sortie in the reverse order of departure (77-1765, 69-7450 and finally 69-7499), all three once again made the long trek down the taxiway to give a final chance to photograph these magnificent aircraft in glorious sunshine. Although the stars of the day had finished flying, the afternoon movements continued with practise displays from Team Daedalus in a Texan II (serial 023) and Team Zeus in a clean fit F-16C (serial 531). The final movements of the day commenced with a three ship launch of Block 52 F-16’s, followed by the departing Belgian F-16AM’s and then the recovery of the afore mentioned ‘Ghost’ Vipers which brought the spotters day to an end.
Friday 5th saw the final goodbye to the Hellenic RF-4E and the disbandment of 348 Mira after 64 years continuous service with Larissa AB open to the public allowing the local population to say goodbye to the famous ‘spook’ which had graced the local skies for over 41 years.
The day consisted of a formal ceremonial parade including prayers, blessings and chanting as part of the disbandment of the squadron and aircraft. Two aircraft were placed on static display, those being a Block 52 F-16C (coded 528) from Larissa based 337 Squadron and the aircraft the RF-4E replaced, an immaculate RF-84F Thunderflash in a bare metal scheme (coded 53-7683).
Flying was to consist of the formation flypast that was practiced during the spotters event a day earlier and two flying displays by the HAF Display Teams; Team Zeus, based at 115 Combat Wing Souda Bay Crete, flying a Block 52 F-16C and Team Daedalus Flying the T-6A Texan II based at 120 Air Training Wing, Kalamata Air Base.
At 1010 the three RF-4E Phantom II aircraft commenced a streamed departure, banking over the ceremonial area in full burner as they took to the skies for their final sortie led by the disbandment special schemed Phantom. The aircraft went off to hold and join up with the Mirage 2000EG and F-16D whilst the official decommissioning ceremony got under way.
Some 40 minutes later the distinctive black smoke emanating from the six powerful J79 engines in the distance heralded the imminent arrival of the formation flypast. On arrival, the F-16 and Mirage 2000 peeled away to leave the three Phantoms to conduct a wide circuit around for their final break overhead the assembled mixture of dignitaries, guests, squadron personnel, locals and enthusiasts.
Five minutes later the smoke trails once again gave warning of the three Phantoms as they approached from the South and gently broke right to land on the westerly runway. The aircraft landed in the reverse order of take off as per Thursday’s practice, with the last Greek new build aircraft 77-1765 landing first, followed by 69-7450. The final Hellenic Air Force RF-4E Phantom II landing was conducted by 69-7499 touching down at 1049.
With most people expecting the aircraft to roll out to the end of the runway and turn right to park in front of the assembled guests, all three aircraft actually turned off early and taxied in via the North side. To the dismay of many, only the retirement special was taxied around and put on display pulling into the gap between the F-16C and RF-84F
The final chapter in the RF-4E history books came at 1059 as the crew of RF-4E 69-7499, Lieutenant Colonel Stavros Antonopoulos (348 MTA Operations Officer) and with Major Labros Tolias in the rear seat, wound down the engines for the last time bringing to an end the career of this stalwart aircraft.
No sooner had the the engine wound down and crew exited the aircraft, the two displays of the day took place with Team Daedalus displaying the Texan II first (serial 023) followed by Team Zeus in the F-16C (serial 502) who finished off the display with a nice topside banking pass.
Before the event came to a close, the fences in the public area were opened up allowing the locals and enthusiasts the rare opportunity to get up very close to all three static aircraft, their crews, staff and personnel of the Hellenic Air Force. It turned into a very hands-on experience for many to actually touch the aircraft and have selfies taken next to them alongside LT Col Stavros Antonopoulos and Major Labros Tolias. At this point, there was also the chance to visit a hangar display which displayed a plethora of images of the RF-4E throughout its service with the HAF and various models. A General Electric J79 engine was also on display along with various pieces of equipment including the recce Phantom cameras with the associated switches and panels that operated them.
To be there was an honour, but you couldn’t help thinking that the flying on the Thursday was a little subdued and even restricted, with just one go around leading to the one real topside pass. But perhaps it was just the case that the crews were respecting their trusty steeds and easing them into well-deserved retirement rather than beating them into submission?
The access at Larissa AB over the two days was superb, and although a promised trip to the stored Phantoms on the North side never materialised, credit has to be given to all those within the HAF and especially 348 Mira that made this event happen. It was a great send off to a magnificent aircraft, the likes of which we will never see operational in Europe again, and to a historic squadron which sees the ‘eyes’ of 348 Mira consigned to the history books after 64 years of illustrious service to the proud nation of Greece.
The film may have ended, but the legend lives on….