Athens Flying Week

Saturday 4th September - Sunday 5th September 2021

Athens Flying Week (AFW), at Tanagra Air Base just outside Chalkida, is Greece’s biggest airshow and one of the best opportunities to see Greek military aircraft on display in a country where spotting is totally forbidden. Like so many others, the 2020 edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic but this year’s came back stronger than ever with the largest international participation and static display the show had seen to date.

Sam Wise reports from his Hellenic holiday for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author.

For European tourists Greece has been one of the most popular destinations this summer for those desperate to get away after a year of isolation. A country that’s heavily economically reliant on tourism, they relaxed their entry requirements relatively early on this year and it’s been the go-to holiday for those wanting a taste of the Mediterranean sun. Perhaps this was why so many foreign air arms rocked up at Tanagra in the first week of September, pilots and air crews thirsty for a summer getaway. More likely, like others in the last couple of weeks, they were simply taking advantage of a drought of summer air shows combined with air forces needing to use up their annual event attendance budgets getting out to wherever they can. Either way, AFW 2021 marked the strongest international attendance in the show’s history.

The most “out-there” nation to show up was that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country with whom Greece’s relations, especially militarily, have been growing markedly in the last year or so, who sent not only their now relatively familiar on the European scene display team, the Saudi Hawks, but also an incredibly rare pairing of an F-15C Eagle and Tornado in the static, the latter supported by a Luftwaffe example also on the ground. A strong static also included a Royal Danish Air Force F-16BM which complemented the beautiful Dannebrog-liveried AM model in the flying display and a pair of Austrian Air Force PC-7s, while France backed their latest Rafale customer with the Armeé de l’Air et de l’Espace’s (AAE) Patrouille de France and Rafale Solo Display in the flying programme.

The Patrouille, with their customary class, drew the blue and white of the Greek flag in the sky in their routine - as did the Saudi Hawks, interestingly, despite blue not being one of their standard smoke colours. The PdF looked especially resplendent in the golden sunset light as they closed the show on the Saturday, as on that day the flying display didn’t start until 3 in the afternoon and went on right until 8pm. This allowed for a very relaxed morning and a genuine treat of seeing much of the flying bathed in golden light as it came to a close - certainly a privilege afforded to those countries with the better weather.

Captain Jérôme Thoule, the AAE Rafale display pilot, during his (obviously) brilliant routine addressed the crowd in Greek over the tannoys during his routine - it was clear from the French flair present at the weekend that the Hellenic Air Force’s purchase of eighteen Rafales is seen as one of Dassault’s major export successes for the type. Similarly, an Aeronautica Militare M-346 in the static display signified the agreement signed in January of this year for the HAF to purchase the type to replace the venerable T-2E Buckeyes.

The current inventory of all three branches of the Hellenic armed forces was just as well represented at the show, with an especially strong Hellenic Army contingent. Their static contribution featured four helicopter types on display - AH-64D Apache, OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, NH90 and CH-47D Chinook, while the flying display swapped the NH90 for UH-1 Hueys. The Army offered a role demo of sorts for their segment, with the Apache and Kiowa Warrior initially providing “top cover” for paratroopers that had jumped from a Chinook while two Hueys flew in and dropped off a pair of soldiers each which were later extracted by fast rope underneath the same Chinook. On the Saturday this was all immediately followed by a sprightly solo display from the OH-58, while this same slot was filled by the Apache on the Sunday. The Kiowa Warrior was only taken on strength with the Hellenic Army last year, from US Army retirement stock, so to be displaying a “brand new” aircraft so soon is a great effort.

The Hellenic Navy’s offer was an S-70B Aegean Hawk showcasing its deployment and extraction of fast-roping marines (their sole operational P-3B Orion, newly restored to service, was ostensibly meant to take part in the flying display but never did, probably due to being tasked elsewhere), but the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) gave the Greek public the most variety. A dogfight between a Mirage 2000 and F-16C, the much-improved Zeus solo display, a Super Puma CSAR demo while a pair of Phantoms gave an “airfield attack” overhead ( was nice to see Phantoms flying, that much can be said about it) and even a surprisingly fruity Tecnam P2002JF flypast were all well received, but the biggest round of applause by far went to the heroes of the summer, the HAF’s Canadair CL-415 that performed a hugely low water drop at crowd centre. Given the awful wildfires and destruction Greece has suffered this summer and the hard work put in by the Greek and international fire crews to fight them it was great to see them get their time in the limelight. That said, there was an on-call Erickson S-64 Skycrane parked at Tanagra all weekend, well away from the public area, which might have been used well in the flying display as a real star item.

On the ground, a single Mirage 2000B in the static was the home base’s contribution but one of the all-over stars of the show was the T-2E Buckeye, which celebrates its 45th anniversary of service with the HAF this year, a type which hasn’t attended AFW in quite a while. A shame it was so tightly packed behind metal barriers, then, as was most other stuff in the static display. A little better thought might’ve allowed most ground display aircraft a lot more space than they were given without the need to put the barriers perhaps 1m away from the aircraft. Sadly, it brought to mind the worst of Yeovilton’s horror-story static layouts.

2021 marks the 200th anniversary of the Greek revolution which gave the country its independence from the Ottoman Empire. While the strong military presence at the show may have been a factor of that, the specific event itself was more subtly marked by a flypast by the HAF F-16 that flew the solo display and an Aegean Airlines A320neo on both days (and, weirdly, the Aegean airliner in formation with the Saudi Hawks to close the show on Sunday). This felt a little undercooked, to be honest - just a couple of formation passes to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the country's independence, when the Aegean flypast is a regular at the show anyway. The anthem was played and the audience stood to their feet for it, but maybe a bit more might've have been done for the occasion.

One of the biggest events at the show was one that we’d maybe not look twice at in the UK - the first public appearance of the Greek-marked Spitfire LF IXc MJ755. MJ755 marks Greece’s first steps into the warbird scene and it truly was the centre of attention at the show, having arrived in the country only at the end of May and being covered quite extensively in the Greek media. It was restored over the last few years by Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar and it was Dan Griffith of that same stable that flew the display, which was much punchier and daring than a traditional Spitfire routine in the UK. Plenty of curving topsides and low passes showed the new aircraft off to the public fantastically and it was clear from the commentary and the rapt attention it got that there had been huge anticipation for this aeroplane.

Not that the crowd was huge, mind. To comply with COVID restrictions, ticketing was strictly limited with a dual access system based on vaccination status (and, pleasingly, you had to show your certificate at the gate on entry), but it was far from sold out. In the spotters grandstand it was clear that easily less than half of the seats, if that, had been sold and the other enclosures (allocated seating only, even in the general admission areas) looked similarly bereft. It can’t be denied that the small numbers made for a much, much nicer airshow experience, especially while wandering the static in what is a relatively small airshow footprint on the air base, but it can’t have been what the organisers were hoping for.

The aforementioned grandstand was part of the show’s spotter package and, honestly, this has to be called out for the shockingly bad value for money it was. A weekend’s worth of spotter's tickets could have come close to the region of €300, but for most of those days you weren’t getting close to what you paid for. The grandstand had a three tiered pricing structure for every day tickets were available - that is, Wednesday to Monday - but you only had access to it on the actual weekend show days. Consequently there were people who were all paying different amounts getting the same experience on many days, none of which was what anyone had paid for anyway.

On the Friday, the spotters were allowed onto base for the rehearsals but were dumped in another grandstand as the spotters one wasn’t built yet - but this turned out to be a bit of a boon as the second, cheaper one was right on crowd centre unlike the more expensive one which was at the end of the crowdline (and set back further from the fence making taxi shots harder and more cluttered). Then, for Monday departures, everyone was brought to the very end of the runway, precluding any airborne shots unless the departing aircraft did a flypast and having most of the angle on the moving aircraft blocked by posts and signs. What’s more, the spotters grandstand was still clearly visibly in place. Mind you, for the money being paid, the enclosure had no toileting facilities, no shade from the ferocious Greek sun and no food or drink points or outlets whatsoever - this wasn’t so much of an issue with such small numbers at the show this year as those out in the public area were never busy, but at full capacity it would’ve really been convenient to have some exclusive to the spotters grandstand. Truth be told, it really emphasised the value for money a package like FRIAT offers.

Leaving the spotter experience aside, AFW 2021 was a pretty successful show that offered a real treat for those after some Hellenic goodies that they won’t see anywhere else and the organisers have shown they can pull some truly rare and diverse participation for a European show. It remains to be seen if the extraordinary size of this year’s show can be repeated in following years - bearing in mind the show has already moved from Tatoi after growing too big - and it can maintain the levels of international participation it has reached.