Hellenic Air Force RF-4E Retirement, Larissa Air Base

Thursday 4th May - Friday 5th May 2017

No one can deny that the F-4 Phantom II is a phirm phavourite of phlying phans, but what was one of the most common types in Europe not that long ago is now nearing its end of days, with only a handful of operators worldwide. The dedicated reconnaissance version, the RF-4E, is now extinct in Europe, with the sole remaining European operator, Greece, retiring its phinal airworthy three at a small ceremony at Larissa Air Base, a two-day event which also saw the disbandment of its operating squadron, 348 MTA, after 64 years of service.

Sam Wise reports for UKAR from the bow-out of a beloved Cold War Warrior. All photographs by the author.

Importantly for both the Hellenic Air Force and Larissa Air Base, the event held at the beginning of May was not just the retirement of the Recce Phantom from European service but also the "suspension of operations" of 348 MTA "Eyes", Greece's first and last reconnaissance squadron, after 64 years of operations and four types operated. Formed in 1953 with the express mission of monitoring neighbouring Warsaw Pact aligned Balkan nations, the squadron's historical types include the F-84G(R) Thunderjet, the RT-33A Shooting Star and the RF-84F Thunderflash (examples of which could be found sat around the base on the spottersday, in various states of completeness). In 1978, the RF-4E Phantom II was brought in, and it proved to be a game-changer for the squadron - no longer restricted to good weather flying and with a new "stand-off" reconnaissance potential the jet brought in a new era of tactical and strategic reconnaissance for the Hellenic Armed Forces.

Attrition losses and a need to increase operational tempo saw an intake of 27 airframes from the German Air Force in the 90s - in fact, the commemorative schemed jet was chosen for the paintjob as it was also the airframe chosen by the Luftwaffe for their own RF-4E retirement commemorative scheme. Indeed, only one of the final three active airframes was part of the initial delivery to the HAF, despite the ex-German airframes being older and less capable in some ways. From 2003 the jets were also tasked with Signal Intelligence using the French-built ASTAC pod. Sadly, all good things must come to an end and while the jet could undoubtedly remain a potent asset for the HAF, technology marches forward and the reconnaissance roles can be performed as competently within each squadron with the likes of the SNIPER pod without the need for dedicated airframes. Few would claim they have the character of the Phantom, though.

When the squadron made public its plans to hold a retirement ceremony and accompanying spottersday to send off this mighty jet, it's no surprise that demand was high, with an initial 300 places being more than doubled. The retirement event for the A-7 Corsair IIs held at Araxos Air Base in 2014 set expectations very high, and it was anticipated that the Greeks would give the assembled spotters a mighty send off for this most beloved of jets. Furthermore, the organisers had stated their hopes for a large contingent of HAF types and international visitors to attend throughout both days. Sadly, for both the squadron and the spotters, the hoped for spectacle was not to be, though not for lack of trying.

The pilots and squadron had made huge preparations for the jets in the months before the event, with the focus being excellent photography for the spotters and an unforgettable experience - training was already taking place a month before the event purely to give the photographers present great images of the jets. However, only a few days beforehand orders from high up were given that meant the squadron had to cancel their grand plans with no time to prepare anything else - consequently, on the day, the flying from the Phantoms were mostly straightforward, run-of-the-mill standard ops; normal takeoffs, no touch-and-goes or missed approaches, and only one or two very high flypasts. Some concession was made with all three jets taxiing closely past the assembled crowds, stopping and posing for photographs, but overall the "send off" was flat, and truthfully unbefitting of the superb jet.

Likewise, bad luck seemed to befall the hosts with regards domestic and international visitors - aside from a good few based F-16 movements and practice displays by the Zeus F-16 and Daedalus T-6 Texan teams, the only Greek aircraft that came in was a Mirage 2000BG, which performed a solitary missed approach before departing, and a pair of Belgian Vipers formed the overseas attendance; a pair of RAF Tornados was scheduled to arrive, on break from ops at Akrotiri - but suffered a bird strike on takeoff and so had to cancel their attendance! From the perspective of those at the spotters day, there was a lot of sitting around in the baking Greek sun while nothing happened, with little to look at but the magnificent, snow-capped Mount Olympus.

But credit where credit is due, it was very obvious even on the day that this was not the will of the hosts. The crowd line was at least a third of the length of the runway, the grass especially mown for the event with ample room even for the 540-odd people that were there on the day. A large scaffold had been erected with no fewer than 6 speakers mounted on it, playing out an eclectic mix of music for the crowds during the day as well as announcements of aircraft movements. In fact, whenever an aircraft was landing or taking off, the volume was cut so the aircraft could be heard properly - UK airshow commentators take note!

A small deli stocked area served food and drinks throughout the day, but the main ground event was the merchandise stall - those familiar with the Greek stands at RIATs in recent years will be able to picture this very well. A plethora of goodies put together exclusively for the event was available for purchase, and purchase the assembled masses did. All told it was clear from the effort that had been made on the ground that they had intended the whole affair to be that much more of a spectacle than it was; as disappointing for the spotters as it was, sympathy must go to the squadron who were denied the chance to put on a real show for their favourite jet.

The next day saw the official retirement ceremony for the squadron, and the last shut down of a European RF-4E. It was important to remind oneself that the event was not for the assembled spotters (who were crammed into a considerably smaller enclosure than the day before)...it really was the disbandment of the ceremony and not an aviation event. The three Phantoms performed a flypast with a HAF Mirage 2000 and F-16, before a break over the crowd themselves and a standard run into land. There were displays by the aforementioned Zeus and Daedalus, and then all of a sudden the event was over, bar a couple of movements by a C-27 Spartan and a Hellenic Army Huey.

With a preserved RF-84F and armed F-16 on static display, it was surprising to see only one of the Phantoms pull up to the crowd - the other two having headed back to the squadron after landing. A trick definitely seemed to have been missed by not having all three come in together, not just from the point of view of getting good photos of the trio but as an acknowledgement of the last three remaining recce Phantoms in Europe. With exasperated Air Force security personnel conceding the spotters a last few minutes of photography, the event was over in just a couple of hours - a privilege to be present, for sure, but a missed opportunity at the same time perhaps.

The general attitude among the crowd afterwards was mixed. There is no doubt that the event was worth travelling for - simply to get up close with the Phantoms was a joy, to see such rarities in the air full stop was the reason everyone had travelled, and of course it cannot be understated what it means to be allowed to photograph military aircraft in a country so famous for its stance on aircraft spotting. Simply to have seen the final hours of Europe's last Recce Rhinos made the trip worthwhile, but there was a huge feeling of "what could have been" from those that did make the journey.

More than a few British enthusiasts could be heard to remark that the event felt "very RAF". This might be an unfair comparison to bring up in a report of an entirely Greek affair, but there is also very real concern that the same might happen - by accident or by design - for the imminent retirement of our own beloved favourite, the Tornado. It seems that 348 MTA suffered an attack of what the RAF has had for a number of years now - an enthusiastic and impassioned squadron attitude stamped on by unwilling top brass. It would be heartbreaking to see the Tornado bow out with the same whimper as the Hellenic RF-4E, and there is the fear that this event was a taste of what the RAF have in store for the end of their hardest working combat type since the Second World War.

To return to the host nation, it is gratifying that they put on a public event anyway, and their gratitude to those that made the trip to see off their aeroplanes was apparent while there. With the "regular" F-4Es still soldiering on for a few more years on either side of the Aegean Sea, European "Tooms" have life left in them yet, and with the Turks apparently already planning the retirement event for theirs, they will hopefully still get the send off the legend deserves.