'Eyes of Larissa', Thessaly, Greece
350km north of Athens amongst green dunes and imposing mountains resides Larissa, the capital and largest city of the Thessaly region and fifth most populous in Greece. Bordering the city to the east is a large military installation that is home to the 110 Combat Wing of the Hellenic Air Force (HAF).
Mid-November 2016 Frontline Aviation were honoured guests of the Wing and in particular, the 348th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) 'Eyes'. The squadron is armed with the RF-4E Phantom II reconnaissance aircraft which has been in service with the Hellenic Air Force since 1978. With the types immanent retirement within the next few months and likely disbandment of the 348TRS, this report examines in detail the squadron's role in the Aegean Theatre from inception to present day.
The 348th Tactical Reconnaissance Flight was formed in August 1953 under the 112 Combat Wing based at Elefsina Airport in response to the increasing power of neighbouring countries. Using the skill and experience of pilots from the Word War, and Armed with the Republic F-84 Thunderjet and the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver aircraft, the Hellenic Air Force and Greek Army were able to carry out advanced tactical reconnaissance and information gathering missions.
The Flight under its first commanding officer, Lieutenant Alexandros Papanikolaou, carried out missions using downward looking cameras installed at the front section of the left wingtip tanks. Technicians from 335 Squadron installed the cameras following USAF instructions for converting conventional aircraft for the reconnaissance role as they were used in the Korean conflict. This allowed the squadron to achieve operational capability within NATO. Only a year following its formation the Flight moved to the 110 Combat Wing located at Larissa Air Force Base, where in the same year the Joint Air Photographic Center had been established.
In May of 1955, the 348th Flight became Squadron, and was armed with Lockheed RT-33A Shooting Star. This aircraft was a conversion of the well known trainer T-33A for use by the NATO forces and US allies. Main differences to the original T-33A were the depletion of the back seat and the new nose to accommodate the photo camera equipment. The RT-33As were a significant boost to the squadron’s capabilities since they were able to carry large and modern cameras for their era. Come August of 1956 further additions in the form of the reconnaissance version of the Thunderjet (RF-84) were received by the squadron.The new aircraft were equipped with three cameras in the nose section for conducting daylight missions. They were capable of photographing targets independently or even with overlaps covering areas from horizon to horizon making use of all three cameras simultaneously
Reconnaissance Phantoms still rely on the original equipment acquired with the airframes, including the KA-56 camera for low-altitude employment (below 6,000ft), and the KS-87 for medium altitudes (500 to 15,000ft).
Images by: Chris Heal & Steve Cooke
resulting in high resolution pictures. As a self protection measure it was armed with four
0.50cal Colt-Browning machine guns. The Thunderjet was a pioneer of its era and obtained great operational returns due to the sophisticated equipment and excellent performance.
Undoubtedly the most important chapter in the history of the 348TRS was written in the fall of 1978 when the very first RF-4E Phantom II aircraft (s/n 77-1761) touched the runway at Larissa on the 3rd of November following a three day journey from St. Louis, USA, home of the manufacturer McDonnell Douglas. Along with the RF-84, the RF-4E was tasked with conducting photo-reconnaissance missions both day and night. Due to the success of the RF-4E, and after 35 years of service in March of 1991, the RF-84F Thunderjet was withdrawn from active service.
In the two years following three Phantoms were lost depleting the fleet of RF-4Es operationally available to the Hellenic Air Force. Despite the tireless efforts and high standards of the ground crews to keep the available aircraft operational there was a need to replace not only the retired RF-84, but the lost RF-4Es also. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War in 1990 and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, the Hellenic Air Force received 27 RF-4E Phantom II's from the Luftwaffe with the first jets arriving at Tanagra air base in May 1993. Twenty of these airframes undertook necessary inspections at the Hellenic Aerospace Industry in order to join the 348TRS fleet while the remaining seven would serve as a source for spare parts. Despite the fact that the ex-German jets were received without RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) equipment and lacked the ability to carry and launch Sidewinder missiles the Hellenic Air Force managed to overcome these inadequacies acquiring a worthy fleet of reconnaissance capable Phantoms. These aircraft would remain in service with the Hellenic Air Force well into the first quarter of the 21st Century.
Despite its age, one of the RF-4E’s key assets is the enormous KS-127A camera with 66in lens used for long-range oblique photography (LOROP). This provides high-resolution images at ranges of up to 60 miles in fair weather conditions. LOROP is much appreciated by the crews because it allows them to fly close to the eastern borders at 40,000ft and obtain images from the opponent’s areas of interest.
The main disadvantage associated with wet-film photography remains: the Phantom aircraft has to get back safely to its base to deliver the valuable material for processing and evaluation. With the dawn of digital technology in the early 2000’s, the Hellenic Air Force tried to integrate a totally new electro-optical camera KS-127EO to the RF-4E, but the program failed due to incompatibility issues arising between the camera and the airframe.
The last significant upgrade to the unit was in 2003 when another role was assigned. The Electronic Intelligence operating the ASTAC pod gave the HAF capability to acquire radar and communications emissions.
The future of the reconnaissance Phantoms is very much dependent on planned maintenance by the Hellenic Air Force, and this is scheduled to end in 2018. Should the HAF decide to retire the RF-4Es in 2018 or sooner, immediate action must be taken to acquire replacements. Requirements could be partially satisfied by the F-16's of 335 Squadron with their DB-110 reconnaissance pods, while integrating the ASTAC system on to another platform such as the Mirage 2000 or the F-4E AUP which could fulfil the demands of the ELINT/SIGINT role.
Frontline Aviation would like to thank the following personnel for their dedication to duty and assistance in creating this article:
Stavros Antonopoulos (348TRS Lt Col)
Demitris Papadimitriou (348TRS Lt Col)
Lampros Tolias (348TRS Major)
Ioannis Tsitoumis (Lt Col HAF Press Spokesperson)
Petros Chatziris (Director Col, HAF Chief’s Staff Office)
Caroline Makropoulos (DSO, British Embassy in Athens)
With the limited number of airframes available, current operations consist of two flights per day with two aircraft involved per flight. The primary role is tactical reconnaissance, with a secondary role being in support of electronic warfare operations. In addition to its military role the squadron also assists with monitoring natural disasters such as forest fires and regions affected by earthquakes. Assistance is also provided to the public authorities in times of civil unrest.
The RF-4E is an all weather, day and night capable aircraft. Night missions are common over Greek territory and the RF-4E in this image is seen recovering back to Larissa AFB.
At least once a week, one airframe is selected to carry out performance and handling checks. An aircraft takes off with full power, and at the airfield threshold pulls into the vertical before levelling off at 10,000ft. The aircraft is then put through a series of high-g manoeuvres before returning to base 15 minutes following launch.
There is a vast community at 110CW in Larissa. They are frequently joined by other units from around the country and time is taken to share skills and experiences amongst ground and flight crews in a relaxed environment. Flight crews from both 348TRS and 339 Sqn (Andravida) are seen in this image exchanging friendly conversation prior to a mission briefing.
An RF-4E Phantom II of 348TRS 'Eyes' taxi's from its HAS for a mission over the Aegean Sea involving F-16s of resident 337 Sqn 'Ghost' and Mirage 2000's from Tanagra.
Using the 348TRS second generation technology alongside the more advanced third generation used by the Block 52+ F-16C/Ds and Mirage 2000's, helps the unit to complete their missions efficiently. All pilots, both young and old, benefit from the co-operation. Regular training with other squadrons maintains combat readiness and the ability to prepare for large scale exercises.
A2A Image by Lambros Tolias
A2A Image by Lambros Tolias
$2.4 Million (£1.95m)
November 1978 to the HAF
5 remain air-worthy on 14.11.16
38 feet, 4.5 inches
16 feet, 6 inches
17,900 lbs per engine (35,800 lbs combined)
Mach 2.23 (over 1,472mph)
The aircraft carries AIM-9L missiles in combination with an integrated self-protection system consisting of the ALR-66/ALR-91 threat warning system, UDIAS jammer, and ALE-40 chaff/flare dispenser. Good weather over the targets remains critical to maximize performance.