On May 5, 2017, the official farewell took place of the RF-4E in service of the Greek Air Force: the last three recce ghosts in Europe were phased out of service. The ceremony also took place on the occasion of the dissolution of 348 MTA Mira Tactics Anagnoriseos, (Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron). The 348th was the only reconnaissance squadron within the Greek Air Force. And it was also the last squadron in Europe with a specific reconnaissance task. After Greece only just Iran and Japan still fly the RF-4.
The 348th was founded in 1953 as The Tactical Reconnaissance Flight (TRF), a component of 335 Mira Elefsina under the 112 Combat Wing. This flight was equipped with Curtiss Helldivers and later, for the reconnaissance task, modified by Republic F-84G Thunderjets: these were equipped with a camera in front of one of the tip tanks. In June 1954 the Flight moved to the 110 Combat Wing at Larissa. Here the Flight became a squadron In May 1955, and the 348 MTA was founded under the 110 Combat Wing at Larissa. The squadron received the Lockheed RT-33A Shooting Star, a version of the T-33A with a camera nose. Behind the pilot the second shooting chair was removed and the vacant space was stuffed with equipment. The RT-33A was delivered to Greece and Turkey as an intermediate solution. In August 1956 the 348th was one of the first NATO countries to receive the RF-84F Thunderflash, a version of the F-84F with a camera nose. The RT-33As were returned to the USAF and i.a. delivered to Italy and Pakistan. In the period December 1956-October 1957 the squadron was part of the 111 CW at nearby Nea Anchialos. After that it returned to Larissa.
RF-84F 53-7683 was one of the last operational Thurderflashes of 348 MTA. The aircraft stayed at Larissa as part of a small museum. It was restored in the scheme from the years 1950-1960 and was obtained from the Luftwaffe around 1965.
In the 1960s the RF-84F was already pretty outdated and was replaced by most air forces. If not in Greece. From November 1970 until 1983 there was a second reconnaissance squadron 349 MTA based at Nea Anchialos. This unit flew with the RF-5A with a camera nose and was used for reconnaissance from low height. In 1983 it became 349th one day hunter squadron, still with a flight equipped with the RF-5A. In 1976 eight RF-4Es were ordered. The order was part of the second Greek Phantom order Peace Icarus II and was signed on October 22, 1976. The order was for 26 Phantoms, 18 F-4Es and eight RF-4Es. The Ghosts were in the SEA camouflage with two shades of green and light brown with a light gray bottom. The aircraft had the rounder, more aerodynamic nose of the later production RF-4Cs. On November 3, 1978, the first RF-4E Phantom II serial 77-1761 landed at Larissa. The last two aircraft were 357 and 358 delivered on 21 June 1979. In the first instance a flight part of 337 Mira was equipped with the RF-4Es and also based at Larissa. On July 12th, 1979 this flight became
348MTA/RF-4E and the Thunderflashes from 348 MTA became 348MTA/RF-84F. This squadron had, in addition to the RF-84F, also twelve F-84F Thunderstreaks, in 1978 received from 344 Mira. On July 1st, 1987 both squadrons were merged as 348 MTA. Finally on March 29, 1991 the RF-84F was officially phased out after 35 years. The then modern RF-4E was a huge improvement compared to he RF-84F and the RF-5A. The Phantom had more and better cameras and a larger flying range. The Greek RF-4Es are Block 66 ones with the USAF serials 77-0357, 77-0358 and 77-1761 to 77-1766. The 357 and 358 are Military Assistance Program (MAP) deliveries, The 1761-1766 were ordered and paid by the Greeks themselves. For self-defense, the RF-4E could be armed with four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. In the 80s the F-4s were provided with the DIAS Electronic warfare package identified by DIAS (Zeus) radar warning receiver antenna on the air intakes and antennas below the radar nose and the brake pad. This system was also installed in almost all the Greek F-4s and A-7 Corsair IIs. Three of the RF-4Es were lost by crashes within eight years. The first one took place on December 10, 1979, the second one on July 11, 1985, and the third on May 7, 1987. In one of the crashes also a KS-127A camera was lost, and was replaced later.
KS-127A LOROP Camera
Main camera was the KS-127A LOROP (Long Range Oblique Photography). With this camera it is possible to produce detailed pictures which are made with detail up to 50 cm, from a height of 40,000 feet, and distances to approx. 50 km. The first cameras had a 50 inch lens (127 inches), later it became a 66 inch lens. In the first instance only two of them were delivered. A film roll was used of 300m long! The equipment was operated by the co-pilot. This person was responsible for the flying picture run using a viewfinder screen next to the radar screen.
In the early nineties the Greek Air Force was hardly looking for new reconnaissance aircraft. The thirteen RF-5As belonging to the 349 Squadron had too much shortcomings. From the German Navy the Greek Air Force received some RF-104Gs. This version did not meet the Greek requirements. The desired solution was a number of ex-USAF RF-4Cs.
The problem became even more severe when the RF-84F was phased out on March 29, 1991. With the five RF-4Es remaining as scouts. The solution came after the termination of the cold war. An agreement with the Russians was concluded, on both sides the numbers of aircraft were reduced. As a result, the German Air Force was shrunk and the RF-4Es needed to be rejected.
The Phantoms were offered to Greece and Turkey who gratefully accepted the offer.
In 1993 Greece received 27 ex-Luftwaffe RF-4Es, twenty for 348 MTA and the other seven as instructional aircraft and for components. The planes were delivered from Leck AB, situated in the northern part of Germany, with a nightly stop at Villafranca in Italy. They received in Greece the serial with the last four digits of the USAF serial, for example the 35+03 (69-7450) became 7450. At Leck the Greek markings were applied but still with the German registration. After the transfer, a few hours before the delivery flight took place, the German registration was removed and the very small USAF serial was added in white on the tail, for example 697482. The spare and instructional planes had the ex-German registration, for example the ex-35+51 had 3551 on the tail. The first Phantoms for 348 MTA arrived in May, 1993. With the arrival of the German Spokes 348 MTA was now fully in strength. There were small differences between the German and the original RF-4Es. The Block 66 ones had lead edge slats (moving valves on the front of the wing). Because of this these ghosts were more viable. The Angle of Attack (AoA) was max 23 degrees, and the AoA of the ex-Germans 19 degrees. The nose had the angular shape of most of the RF-4Cs. The German RF-4Es had undergone a midlife update, after which they could also be deployed as a bomber. As far as known the Greeks have never used this option. Color scheme was the German Norm 83 camouflage. Even after major maintenance in Greece this scheme was reapplied. Some ex-German RF-4Es received SEA camouflage. The planes were delivered without self defense system, single with the ALE-40 chaff/flare dispenser. They were quickly supplied with the ALR-91 Airborne Warning System and the newer ALE-47 chaff/flare dispenser system. The ALR-91 System was also installed in the 64 A-7E/TA-C Corsairs, the 28 used F-4E SRA Phantoms and the Greek F-4s that were not equipped with the DIAS system. The ex-Germans also did not have the Sidewinder as a weapon. The Greeks provided the planes later with extra wiring for carrying and firing of the Sidewinders.
7450 in original German Air Force scheme during take-off at Larissa on the 29th of May 2006.
348 MTA had for Electronic reconnaissance the ASTAC pod available (Analyseurga Siynaux Tactics - Tactical Signals Analysis pod). ASTAC is a reconnaissance system used for receiving and analyzing of signals from radars and weapon systems. ASTAC indicates a precise image, for example the position of radar systems. The ASTAC sensor is in a supersonic pod, hung up below the centerline of a RF-4. After a test period of two years the pod became in service in 2003. Disadvantage of the RF-4E is that the Phantom does not have a data link connection for real time forwarding of data. These data had to be downloaded after landing. In addition to the use by the Greeks the pod is also used by the French Air Force, first under the Mirage F1CR and now below the Mirage 2000D, plus under the Japanese Air Force RF-4EJs. How this task is filled in is not known.
In the Greek magazine Ptisi (Flight And Space) it was reported the investigation to equip the RF-4s with digital cameras. This did not work because the lenses for digital were too long and they did not fit in the nose. Also the existing wiring could not support the digital cameras. Besides that other systems in the RF-4 caused failures. All in all one flop, the program was canceled. Replacement for the RF-4E are the F-16 and drones. Greece bought the Goodrich DB-110 pod, a pod equipped for day and night photography and electronic reconnaissance to be fitted under the F-16. 335 Mira stationed at Araxos is now equipped with these pods and takes over the reconnaissance task.
When the decision was made to replace the RF-4 major maintenance was stopped at HAI. The strength of the squadron was slowly reduced. The ones that were throughout the hours were taken out of service. In addition, some went into storage, but were kept airworthy. Later a number flew to Andravida for parts, to keep the F-4E AUP fleet airworthy. In December 2015 there were five airworthy RF-4Es, reduced to three when the 7496 was phased out on the 28th of December 2016 and the 7500 was retired on the 26th of January 2017. Until the end three stayed active:
- 69-7450 - in special scheme for the 60th anniversary of 348 Mira in 2013;
- 69-7499 - in a farewell scheme applied just before the final retirement;
- 77-1765 - the last airworthy Peace Icarus II RF-4E.
The 7499 remains at Larissa as a monument. The 7450 was flown to Tanagra to get there disassembled so that it can be transported by road to the Air Force Museum at Tatoi. The 71765 went to Andravida for parts.
With the approach of phasing out of the RF-4E a number of pilots switched to the F-16. On May the 4th it was not yet known where the rest of the staff would be placed.
On May 3 there was a media day, and on May 4 a spotters day was organized from 09:00 to 15:00, where 514 of the 602 registered spotters finally joined this day. With a very good position close to the taxiway, with the sun in the back, the three RF-4Es flew twice and especially taxied back over this taxiway for the photographers and sometimes stopped in front of them. Of the promised visitors only two Belgian F-16s arrived from the 1st Smaldeel based at Florennes, a squadron which also has a photo task with pods. Some promised British Tornados remained on their way because of a bird strike.
On May 5, there was also an open day including a flypast with the three remaining airworthy RF-4Es flanked by an F-16 on one side and a Mirage 2000 on the other side. Above the field the F-16 and Mirage made a break and the F-4s flew through.
The F-4E AUP (MLU) version of the Phantom is still in service at Andravida's 117 Combat Wing with the 338 and 339 Mira. Also there it becomes difficult to keep the Phantoms flying. The ones that have been through the flying hours will be phased out. Next year the 339 Mira will be disbanded. As expected then the end for the Greek Air Force Phantoms will follow in 2020.
With thanks to:
- HAFGS Spokesman: Lt Colonel (P) Ioannis Tsitoumis;
- Media Day/Spotters Day Organizers: Major Lambros Tolias; Captain George Poimenidis; Captain Achilles Michalopoulos;
- Hellenic Air Force personal at Larissa;