Greece II 2017
We had something to celebrate this year, for it was the tenth time that 4Aviation went to Greece for the Hellenic Air Force’s Patron Saint celebrations and open days. Past experiences have proven that every year has its surprises, in a good sense, and this year would be no different. We would also be going to Cyprus for the first time, to join a similar event hosted by the Greek-Cypriot Air Corps. Expectations were high, with good reasons!
After a bit of a rough start on Saturday 4 November 2017, courtesy of rogue alarm clocks and computer malfunctions at Schiphol airport, around noon the group found itself complete and ready to go at Athens Airport. Destination for the evening was Larissa, a good couple of hours drive in our three minivans. Luckily there are a some nice w&r locations along the route, which were duly visited, photographed and logged. The weather wasn’t really playing ball, but since the forecasts would only improve by the day that wasn’t an issue at all. Traffic chaos due to road works in the centre of Volos city threw up a bit of a challenge, but we overcame that hurdle just in time to tick off our last w&r location of the day, an OH-13 helicopter, in very fading light. After that it was just a fairly short drive to our hotel in the city centre of Larissa, and a good meal in a nearby restaurant. The service was slow…but the food was good!
On Sunday (5 November) an early departure from the hotel gave us ample time to first visit two w&r locations before we would present ourselves at the Larissa main gate, nine o’clock sharp. This time we had no problems at all to drive straight to the preserved F-5 at Therpsithea, not a challenge at all if you know how to get there from previous, more adventurous, experiences. Access to Larissa was swift, with the customary collection of all passports and a “Yes we know the way!”. The static line-up was unfortunately a small affair, the previous years a couple of RF-4s would also be on the static, but of course these have now been retired. One would expect their place on the static to be filled with other aircraft, but that was not the case. That is: not if you don’t count the small drone aircraft. The early low clouds luckily dispersed and the sun showed itself right on time. In hindsight we can say that we would be enjoying sunshine at almost every base we visited! Every year you don’t know what is allowed on base, and what is not. This time it was no problem to not only photograph the memorial park (with aircraft) on base, but also the aircraft preserved near the main gate. After our short stay at Larissa we had to do a small detour back to the hotel to pick up a left behind jacket, and more traffic chaos.
The next stop was the small town of Stefanovikio, not far from Nea Anchialos, for another preserved OH-13. After this the group set out to Nea Anchialos. Dark clouds didn’t forebode much good, but once on base the sun reappeared and all was good. At first the local base security appeared to be a bit strict, but in the end our escorting security officer was more than helpful: clearing an F-16 used for small and grown up children to sit in, so we at least could photograph it properly, and after that allowing us to photograph the preserved aircraft alongside the road back to the main gate. Greeks are really the most welcoming and helpful people, if you just don’t overstep their boundaries.
A busy schedule for Monday 6 November, with three open airbases “to do” and hopefully enough flying action (this being a Monday and thus a “normal” flying day). First stop Tanagra. We were a bit early, so we had to wait just outside of the gate. When asked about the time of opening, the guard kept it vague: “Nahhhh after nine, quarter past maybe”. We made it clear we more likely expecting nine o’clock sharp! Our thee minivans weren’t the first to queue up at the gate at nine, but all vehicles were summoned to make an immediate u-turn after the gate and drive straight out again. Not us (of course!), our timing was immaculate and we were the first on base. A good thing, as the first Mirage 2000s were already taxiing out and we were just in time near the runway threshold to have a go at them. Between taxiing Mirages and overshooting Dromaders it was also a bit of a rush to photograph the static aircraft without the first busloads of school children blocking the view. Most of our group decided to wait for the return of the four Mirages in the air from where we had parked our minivans, which is a bit closer to the action than from the edge of the shelter area. The Mirages returned all four duly in time, and we could get under way to our next destination. But not before we had a chance to photograph the silver F-104 at the gate, again something which was not always allowed on previous occasions.
Onwards to Dekelia / Tatoi, home of the Hellenic Air Force museum. On arrival it immediately became clear that we were almost the only ones visiting, which made photography much easier and less time consuming, had it been crowded then it would have been a whole different story. A single T-41 and Dromader complemented the museum’s outside line-up, as part of the Patrons Day celebrations. Those of us less interested in the museum were entertained by the local T-41s flying short training missions. The Coast Guard wouldn’t play similar ball, but it was all smiles by everyone when three Dromaders taxied out, went right past us, and took off in beautiful view. How cool is it to have these flimsy looking but rugged old piston aircraft still flying in your Air Force? More piston engine sound overhead the airfield came courtesy of a Canadair 215 water bomber flying outbound of Elefsis, our next target of the day.
At Elefsis the powers that be had decided to organise the Patrons Day celebrations and small static show in a new location, no longer on the AEW Embraer platform but on the other side of the airfield, in the new hangar of the helicopter squadron. The static consisted of a single Canadair 215 and Dromader outside (the C-27J which had apparently been present as well the day before, had been removed), plus a couple of Huey helicopters inside the hangar. Our escort had no problems with us also taking photos of an additional couple of helicopters (Hueys and Super Puma’s) pushed away behind a screen at the back of the hangar, as long as we didn’t take any photos of the aircraft at the other side of the airfield. But that happened anyway of course, as far as it had any sense, when a C-130 came in and another one departed, both which we were more than welcome to take pictures of. As the icing on the cake, and admittedly with more than a little bit of surprise, when asked if our escort could take us to the nearby dump area, he agreed. After this our escort had to say goodbye and handed us over to his deputy. It still took some convincing at the main gate for allowance to photograph the memorial park near the gate (again, full of aircraft), something which had already been assured to us by our original escort.
After Elefsis our day wasn’t over yet, for we still had a long drive ahead of us, crossing the Peloponnisos to Kalamata. A couple of years ago this would have been a substantial undertaking over half-finished motorway and secondary roads, but fortunately the motorway is now fully completed all the way to Kalamata, including an almost countless number of toll stations. A routine police control at one of these toll stations saw us being pulled over, but the police officer soon found out he was dealing with three minivans full of grinning foreigners, and had us on our way again before anyone could say “Yassas astynomikós”. Less fortunate was the farmer in front of us with potatoes stacked literally three meters high in the back of his small pickup truck. The sat-nav in the lead vehicle had its own interpretation of the quickest way to the hotel, and sent us through the centre of Kalamata city, with a preference to the narrowest alleys possible. One minivan abandoned this folly and went on their own way, the other two persevered. What are the odds, with all those small alleys in the whole of Kalamata, to be guided through the one alley with a real F-5 next to it? Yes, we knew it was supposed to be there, but driving to it was not in our plans for tonight. The occupants of the second minivan, faithfully following the lead, simply didn’t believe this route wasn’t on purpose! We finished the day with dinner in the hotel, and a beer or two.
Kalamata (on Tuesday 7 November) seems to be tricky every year, security-wise, and this year was no exception. Not that we weren’t welcome, but what was allowed to be photographed was rather restricted and pretty strictly enforced. The singe T-6 and T-2 displayed in front of the hangar was no problem, nor were the four aircraft inside the hangar, but another T-2 just outside being worked on was a definite “no go”. So were all the T-2s on the adjacent flight line. That hurts of course, the T-2 Buckeye is an old aircraft with the Greeks being the very last nation to operate them, and certainly one of the highlights of each November tour to Greece. Our security escort was happy with the way our group behaved and (at least visible to him) obeyed, and when we met an older pilot who to our big surprise spoke a few words of Dutch (he explained he was married to a Dutch woman) and arranged for one of the T-2s in the air at that moment to make a low pass over the static ramp, our escort relaxed even more, resulting in many Buckeyes on the flight line being photographed in the end after all. Again, it all depends on who you meet and how you behave yourselves. The low pass was a nice gesture but rather fruitless photography-wise, but we showed our appreciation nevertheless. Our new pilot friend said goodbye with a “It’s freezing in Groningen!”, and then it was time for us to go. Not everything was open for discussion now, because the couple of aircraft at the gate were still off-limits to us.
Next stop: a petrol station and then Andravida, or rather the preserved F-104 just south of the base. It’s a good two hour plus drive from Kalamata to Andravida, but also a beautiful drive and fortunately with almost empty roads. Once at Andravida we didn’t have to wait for a shuttle bus to bring us to the static display platform, like in previous years. Instead we could just drive and that’s much quicker. Just as good because the sound of J79 engines running will not keep the average aircraft nutter waiting with much patience! The people at Andravida know exactly what the foreign visitors were after, two F-4s on the platform and another one in the hangar doesn’t sound like much, but positioning ourselves at the edge of the platform and pointing our long lenses to everything that was flying and taxiing was very much allowed. And we were in luck! Not only with a couple of F-4s flying, but once the take offs started we were treated with F-16 after F-16 going aloft, topped off with a single Mirage. The Fighter Weapons Course was in full swing, and it was showing! We had enough time left on base to wait for the return of all jets, with all F-16s taxiing in front of us, in glorious sunshine, back to the FWC ramp.
By the time we reached Araxos it was already pretty late in the afternoon, and the sun had unfortunately forsaken us. First there was some confusion whether we needed to leave our passports at the gate or not, and then we had to wait a while for the bus to take us to the 335Mira area where the static show is now being organised. This bus turned out to be way too small to take our group, let alone including a couple of locals who also showed up, so it had to shuttle back and forth which took some time. Probably not on purpose, but the first half of our group was first shown the inside of the base museum (only a couple of aircraft outside) before being allowed on the static platform, by which time the second half of our group had also arrived. Again a small affair, with only three F-16s, it was however a welcome event, especially when the ground crew started removing access ladders and such on our request, with the same ladders later used to gain even better photography positions. On our way in we had passed a group of preserved aircraft near a memorial, and an AB-205 on alert. The latter was not available for photography (although some managed to take a shot or two from the speeding shuttle bus) but the preserved aircraft where, with the shuttle bus doing an extra stop there. Very kind!
All what was left for the day, was “just” a drive back to Athens and our hotel for the night. Somewhere we managed to find a decent roadside “restaurant” with proper food. The only pity part was that the individual ordering at the counter, and cooking, took much longer than hoped for, with the first couple of people already jumping the queue “just for deserts” while the second half still hadn’t ordered their meal. Anyway, all was well and everybody was properly fed in the end. We reached our hotel at the far end of Athens at a decent time halfway the evening, time to catch some sleep and an early rise, for the second part of this trip.
Off to Cyprus on Wednesday 8 November! Everybody was in the hotel lobby, ready and eager to go, at half past five in the morning. All went smoothly and there was even time for some breakfast whilst waiting near the gate for our flight to Larnaca. Once we had picked up our three new minivans, it was only a good hour’s drive to Paphos, where the Cypriot Air Command was organising a similar Patron Saint celebration event. The guards at the military gate of Paphos International Airport were at first a bit stumped by the arrival of three vans full with foreigners, but immediately assured us we were going to be allowed on base. After only a few minutes waiting the passports were checked and we could drive on base behind an escort. It soon became clear to all of us that the Cypriots had everything well in order: it’s air force might be small but with modern and well maintained facilities. The “Turkish threat” is well visible, with armed guards in impressive looking watch towers. We parked on a large ramp (with only a very few cars on it) close to the static show. To our joy we counted not one but two Mi-35 Hinds outside, plus a Gazelle, Bell 206, AW-139 and a BN-2 Defender. The official ceremony had just finished and the last Cypriot top brass was just about to leave. From the way we were watched, by the higher ranks but also the pilots and ground crew, it was clear they had not witnessed such a group of photographers before. At one point we got to meet the commander of the Air Command, who was enthusiastic about our presence and assured us we would be more than welcome again next year! Good to know. It took some convincing for one of the Hind crews to unpack and show their squadron badges and memorabilia again, but in the end we’re sure they were glad they did! There was no flying activity that afternoon, that had apparently already taken place in the morning. Too bad we missed that, but photo’s wouldn’t have been very good because of the position of the sun. According to one officer, there was supposed to be a public event on Saturday, with flying activity. But of course by then we would be well and truly back home. Another minor negative were the five additional Hinds in the hangar to the back of the static line, these were most definitely “out of bounds”, but at least were visible to the few who tried before the hangar doors closed. On the plus side however, were the ground crews and pilots who were very helpful in clearing all helicopters of equipment in front.
After a good 90 minutes or so it became clear that we had achieved what we came for, with no need to stay any longer on base, or return the next day. Once off base we spent the rest of the afternoon under the airfield’s approach for some airliner spotting and a swim in the Mediterranean sea for some. The cherry on the cake, before we head into Paphos town for our hotel, were two Shackletons and a Flamant, deserted near the airfields edge
We were in no hurry on Thursday morning (9 November), and everybody welcomed not having to set the alarm clock at five in the morning and having to rush. The plan was to drive back to Larnaca and be there around noon, for a prearranged visit to the Department of Forestry flying unit. First air side passes had to be obtained from an office in the airport terminal, before we could head down to meet our guides, but all that went amazingly smooth. The Department of Forestry only has two aircraft, an AT-802 and a Thrush, both of which to be photographed. In fact, the AT-802 was towed outside into the sun just for our benefit. “Only” two aircraft make for a short visit, although the civil airliner interested amongst us were also entertained by the (apparently) quite exotic jets taxiing very close to the ramp we were positioned on. But in the end we had to say goodbye to our friendly guides, return the air side passes to the main terminal, and find a spot near the approach for the remainder of the afternoon. This was again on the beach, but this time with places to eat and drink. Some enjoyed themselves with photography, others indulged themselves in the Cypriot cuisine, whilst being harassed by a substantial group of cats begging for food. After having checked in into our final hotel, we walked to a nearby restaurant which was recommended by the hotel staff. We were treated to Mezé, with in total 25 different kind of dishes being served, of all kinds of food, one after the other. One can’t help to think after a while “please stop, I’ve had enough!” but the dishes kept coming. Our long table was literally stacked with (half) empty dishes, a sight to behold and (for the most part) very tasty! A fitting end to a great week.
On Friday 10 November it was time to go home. Again a very early rise and gathering in the hotel lobby, for our 8 o’clock departure to Athens and then Amsterdam. In Athens we said goodbye to those taking other flights home. The remainder of the group did just the same at Schiphol, after a slightly delayed flight and the happy conclusion that all luggage had taken the same route as ourselves. Efcharistó Elláda, efcharistó Kýpros!