The largest of all the Greek islands, Crete sits to the South of Greece’s mainland and is home to the 115 Combat Wing – Hellenic Air Force (115 CW) based on the sprawling Souda Air Base situated near Chania. Commanded by Colonel Ioannis Birmpilis, 115 Combat Wing is tasked primarily with protecting the southern flanks of both the countries airspace and waters.
Along with two squadrons of around 20 Lockheed Martin F-16 C/D variants, namely 340 Mira (Fox) and 343 Mira (Star), the 115 Combat Wing base at Souda is also home to the Operational Conversion Unit, or SMET as it is known. Although it does not have any aircraft allocated to its books, SMET utilises aircraft from both frontline squadrons to fulfil their daily flying commitments.
The F-16 aircraft – Block 52+ models – maintained, operated and flown by the men and women of the wing, are among the most modern in the Hellenic Air Force’s (HAF) inventory. Purchased under the Xenia Peace III program and delivered between May 2003 and June 2004, the upgraded Vipers gave the air arm the ability to increase their optimum sortie times, including the likes of loiter time on station and also opened up a whole new avenue of available weaponry and mission capabilities.
However, a new upgrade is on the horizon as a deal to upgrade the current Block 52+ jets to F-16V standard was signed on April 30th of this year – more of that news later.
The most noticeable visual difference on the Block 52+ F-16s is the Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) that are fitted to either side of the jets spine that sits on top of the fuselage. Comprising of four separate pieces, the tanks can be fitted and removed in well under 90 minutes with a well-practised and drilled team of maintainers on hand. Despite their ungainly appearance, the use of CFTs actually takes very little away from the types world renowned manoeuvrability and performance while producing very little drag. With the ability to carry approximately 3,000lbs of ‘extra’ fuel, the use of underwing fuel tanks is negated thus allowing the would be used hard points to be freed up for weaponry or targeting systems.
The two seat variants also have they own unique visual appearance by way of their ‘big spine’ or ‘dorsal spine’. To fit the second ‘seat’ which is used by either a WSO (Weapons System Operator) or an F-16 Instructor Pilot (IP), the electronics and avionics normally housed behind the cockpit of the ‘C’ were incorporated into the ‘spine’. Again, despite its rather ungainly appearance, the length of the jet is unaffected and any detriment to its performance is considered minimal.
One other difference between Block 50 to Block 52+ F-16s is the installation of the Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-229 engine, which has a slightly longer and lighter exhaust nozzle compared to the F110-GE-129 previously used. It should be noted both units provide roughly the same amount of thrust, in the area of 18,000lbs at dry power.
Internally, the Block 52+ saw various improvements in several key areas, notably an updated AN-APG68 Radar, HUD (Head Up Display), mission computers, targeting systems and the addition of colour MFDs (Multi-Function Display). Along with new link and data systems, improvements also saw the introduction of the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS).
Although both 115 Combat Wing squadrons based at Souda fly the same Block of F-16, they have very different operational roles.
340 Mira, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel(P) Ioannis Markakis, occupy the Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) at the western end of the airfield with a primary role of precision day and night strike using a plethora of weapons including ground munitions such as Paveway Laser Guided Bombs and AGM-65 Mavericks in the air-to-ground aspect along with Sidwinders/ AIM-2000 IRIS-T and AMRAAM air-to-air missiles for air defence.
343 Mira, Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel (P) Thomas Gkourlias , are found in the Eastern HAS Sites and currently undertake interception, force protection and SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) as their primary roles. Utilising a similar air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions as 340 Mira, the unit also use the AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) and the AGM-88B HARM missile to complete the SEAD role.
The SMET are on hand to train new pilots how to first fly the F-16 and how to fight to win using it in a combat situation. Student pilots are placed on courses that can last from anything between six and nine months, this being dependent on the course size – normally somewhere between six to twelve pilots. Each student can expect to fly around 70-80 sorties prior to graduating as a fully-fledged ‘Viper’ pilot.
Flying a minimum of twelve sorties – this normally ended up a mixture of actual flights and simulator sorties – before being allowed to fly solo in the F-16C, students must have flown at least six sorties in the F-16D before gaining their solo ticket. To become night qualified and fly with or by Night Vision Goggles (NVG), each pilot must fly at least two sorties in the D out of the requirement of six sorties.
Although the F-16 simulator at Souda is not a full motion simulator, it does gives students a realistic and valuable tool in which they can practice and hone their skills without the need to take up any of the airframes valuable flight hours. It also ensures the instructors have every confidence that their student is ready for their next flying sortie, by way of creating or recreating scenarios pertinent to each stage of the course.
As it stands, the airport at Chania already has a massive footprint and even today it is ever expanding with more and more commercial aircraft carrying tourists to the island. Add to that the US Naval Support Activity (NSA) facilities, they share much of the north side of the site.
This makes life a little difficult for the 115 Combat WIng squadrons operating from the south side, when planning their flying activities – both day and night. A typical day will see two waves of Vipers launch, normally between the hours of 0900 and 0945 and then again around 1300 through 1345. As can be imagined with the launches having to be fitted in around the ever increasing scheduled slot times given to the airlines, the use of the visual circuit is sadly nigh on impossible. The same problems occur when the units plan their night sorties. While these take place as and when required, they are also ‘slotted’ in around the multitude of civilian arrivals and departures.
115 Combat Wing is very much self-sufficient when it comes to aircraft maintenance with over 170 personnel on strength with the task of seeing to everything from day-to-day minor ‘snags’ on the line to more in depth work such as engine changes and anti-corrosion inspections. During the authors visit, aircraft 505 was seen emerging from the wash bay, having been scrubbed prior to being defueled and being towed into the maintenance hangar where it would be stripped right back to undergo a 6 month anti-corrosion treatment.
The HAF Vipers are well known for their unique paint scheme, known as ‘Aegean Ghost’ or ‘Ghost’ the official title is ‘Have Glass’ – a radar reflective paint which reduces the radar cross section of the aircraft. The coating is surprisingly rough to the touch and therefore attracts dirt and grime which gives the aircraft a very photogenic, well-used and weathered look.
Greek mythology will tell you that Zeus was born on the island of Crete and it is his name that is used by the Hellenic F-16 Demo Display Team also based out of Souda.
The seeds of Team Zeus were sown during 2009 when the original team were selected and subsequently trained by the Viper West F-16 Demo Team at their Hill Air Force Base home in Utah. During a 28 day period in January 2010, a training program was completed and after months of practice back home, the team’s first official airshow appearance took place at Tanagra Air Base on the Greek mainland. Showing off the F-16C Block 52, the team until recently were the only team in Europe to display the type with CFT’s fitted, a feat now matched by the Polish Air Force’s Tiger F-16 Demo Team.
The team have two dedicated pilots who take turns to fly the demo – each pilot having been selected from 340 and 343 Mira respectively. To become a Team Zeus pilot, those selected must have carried out the duty of safety pilot/narrator first for the team and have at least 600-plus hours on type.
During our visit, a currency display had been scheduled for us to watch with the team as Captain (P) Georgios Papadakis prepared for the teams departure to Kleine Brogel for the Belgian Air Force Days. Georgios flies with 340 Mira and has accumulated over 1,900 flying hours since joining the Hellenic Air Force in 1999 – over 1,400 of those on the F-16 since converting to the type in 2006 from the A-7E Corsair.
Until last year, Team Zeus had taken the European airshow scene by storm with their immaculately special schemed jet, however, following a number of displays, the paint started flaking off and it now sits forlornly in the corner of the unit’s hangar awaiting redress. Speaking with the Commanding Officer of 340 Mira Lieutenant Colonel (P) Thomas Gkourlias and Captain Papadakis, both confirmed that there had been discussions for a replacement schemed aircraft possibly for the 2019 season, but at the time of the visit, nothing had been agreed.
115 Combat Wing also hold Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) with two F-16s sitting on immediate readiness ready to launch and intercept any aircraft that may pose a threat – either by accident or dishonourable intentions. The aircraft, fitted with CFTs, sit in two separate HASs fully armed with two AMRAAM and two IRIS-T missiles. As well as the CFTs, the jets are fitted with two drop tanks to boost their endurance – something of major importance given the fact that the HAF does not hold dedicated tanker support. Both 340 and 343 Mira share QRA duties and have scrambled on numerous occasions to intercept Turkish aircraft testing the Greeks response times by making incursions into disputed airspace.
On one such occasion on May 23, 2006, Captain Costas Iliakis of 343 Mira was scrambled to intercept a Turkish F-16 flying to the east of the Greek island of Karpathos. During the interception, the aircraft collided and Captain Iliakis was killed as a result. The Turkish pilot, 1st LT Halil Ibrahim Ozdemir, managed to eject and went on to refuse to be rescued by a Greek SAR Helicopter launched in the aftermath.
During our visit to the ‘Star’ squadron, a memorial to Captain Iliakis was pointed out by the Commanding Officer of 343 on the wall as you enter the squadron’s building. I was then shown to the 343 Mira Safety equipment room, and where Captian Iliakis locker and its contents which remain as they were on the day he made the ultimate sacrifice. It was a truly moving and humbling experience to be allowed to see this memorial to a man who is fondly remembered and honoured by his Squadron. There is also a memorial on the island of Karpathos to Captain Iliakis at the port of Pigadia.
As mentioned at the start of this article, the Hellenic Air Force has signed an agreement on April 30th of this year with the US to upgrade its Block 52+ jets to F-16V – or Viper standard. The deal will see 85 of the HAF’s 154 F-16s brought up to the latest Block 70/72 Viper variant, at a total cost of around $1.45 billion dollars. Although a large portion of this will be offset. A new F-16V Simulator will also be provided, and two further simulators will be upgraded to the standard as part of the deal.
The Lockheed Martin F-16V conducted its maiden flight on the 16th October 2015 and brings the 40+ year old aircraft up to date with a host of improvements centred around the Northrop Grumman’s new APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) fire control radar. It provides an all weather targeting 5th Generation air to air and air to ground radar capability along with software and hardware commonality with F-35 and F-22 AESA radars.
Other upgrades include; a commercial off the shelf based avionics subsystem, along with a high resolution Central Pedestal Display (CPD). The overall operational capabilities of the aircraft are increased through the use of a Link 16 Data Link, advanced weapons such as the battle proven Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, highly precise Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation, and the well proven and life saving Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS).
The upgrade will see 85 HAF aircraft upgraded and this consists of one F-16 Block 50+ (an aircraft previously used as a prototype for the latest Peace Xenia III program) along with 54 F-16 Block 52+ and 30 F-16 Block 52+ Advanced aircraft. The first HAF F-16 was due to arrive in the USA during August 2018 to become the test-bed aircraft. Up to 12 upgraded F-16V aircraft per year will be delivered back to the HAF by the Hellenic Aviation Industry (HAI) between 2021 and 2028.
The Greek government clearly doesn’t have the finances to purchase 5th generation aircraft given the recent monetary restructuring, but the deal that has been agreed with the USA sees the HAF getting a very cost effective upgrade to their fleet of Aegean Ghost Vipers, and they will remain a hugely important and very capable partner within NATO.