Story and images by Contributor Robert Griffiths
Assignment 54A, Larisa Air Base, Greece. RF-4E Phantom II retirement. May 2017
I sat transfixed, staring at my phone for what seemed an eternity, when in reality it was probably only a few seconds. I still couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. Merely sixteen minutes after sending the initial email on the 23 February, to the Centre of Aviation Photography (COAP), I received a reply from the man himself, Rich Cooper. It stated simply: ‘You’re in…Stay tuned for the next steps’. I had secured myself one of eight places on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see out the retirement of the last three Hellenic Air Force (HAF) McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom IIs in Europe. The rest of my day passed by in a bit of a haze as the magnitude of this opportunity started sinking in. So many questions ran through my mind. Did I have the right kit? Enough memory cards? Batteries? And most importantly… suncream! I had until May to ensure all was in place.
May came around pretty quickly and the hype really reached a crescendo. This was actually happening! It was a short trip for me from the centre of London to Gatwick airport where I would meet the COAP team and the other lucky attendees. Recognising both Rich and Steven Comber from a previous COAP event, I was able to locate the group, with both introducing me to everyone else present. Some had been on previous assignments, myself included, but this was my first overseas assignment. How can you tell we were a group of photographers from the outset? It wasn’t the massive carry-on bags we had, but the fact we were taking photos as soon as we hit the skybridge on the way to our EasyJet Flight gate. Onward to Athens!
Arriving with the sun setting, we shuffled through immigration and the necessary stamp for the HAF museum we would visit on the way back. Next was to hire a minivan and then drive the three plus hours to Larisa and the hotel. How Steve and Rich managed it after just coming back from another assignment in the States is beyond me. Arriving early morning, we didn't have long to get to our rooms and get a few hours kip (that’s sleep for you non Brits), perform a last minute check of my gear and last minute battery charges before a 6am wake up call.
We waited in the minivan just outside the gate for the Photographer’s day at Larisa AB, not even 0800 and it was 25C (77F)... big change in climate for a Welsh boy. It was at this point I realised how well known Rich and Steve were, after many people passed saying hello and having a conversation. It wasn’t long before we started moving. After getting our ‘tog passes for the day, we parked up on an old taxi way. Walking in the heat, we passed the carcasses of previous Larisa AB residents: Lockheed RF-104 Starfighters, Republic RF-84 Thunderflashes, and an old Lockheed RF-55 Shooting Star, plus an insane amount of external fuel tanks. Three of us stayed together and moved down the taxiway the Phantoms would use on their returns, for now bypassing the merchandise stand which was being overrun. Before we knew it the first of the Phantoms was lifting off, with no warning, save the call from a few togs further down the line. This was it, the first time I had seen Phantoms do more in their natural habitat than arrive at the Royal International Air Tattoo and go on static display. This was in the colours of the old South East Asian camouflage (turns out this was to become my favourite), powering into the blue skies with its J79s in full reheat. The next was a Phantom with a specially painted tail and the second of the three remaining RF-4E Phantom IIs in Europe. Not long after that, a set of Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons took off in hot pursuit, ready for the day’s hop. While shooting in Greece, I was taken aback by the abundance of light during the day, with blue skies and a bit of haze in the distance; a stark difference to the often unreliable weather so common with RIAT that so many photographers there will know. The biggest problem we faced during this day was the heat haze from the tarmac, making shots of the Phantoms very difficult. Autofocus had a tough time focussing on them when they touched down. What improved things was when the two Phantoms had landed, they taxied up past all the ‘togs on a parallel taxiway, the trademark double canopies open along with a wave from the crews. It was something I thought I would never experience, being so close to a Phantom that you could feel the exhaust from the two J79s powering each of them and that unmistakable smell of Jet A1 that so many fellow aviation photographers and fans love.
There was a long gap before anything else happened aside from a fully armed F-16 Fighting Falcon scrambling as if reacting to a call. Then, finally, the last of the three Phantoms was airborne, and probably one of the best coloured aircraft I have ever seen; matte black with bright orange, a massive Greek flag adorning the rear quarter along with Spook the mascot. A couple of flybys and a landing later, it was the turn of this beauty to taxi past us in all its glory, the contrasting flat black and orange with the Greek Flag and Spook mascot adorning the rear quarters, was something to be marvelled at. Turning towards the ‘togs for head-on shots every 50 to 100 yards meant ample opportunity for great photos, not to mention the noise of those J79s spooling, was an experience in itself. She turned a 180 on the taxiway, again stopping and spooling those engines, and caused a stampede of photographers to get in front of her for a sooty backdrop. Off she went back to the hard standing from whence she came, and silence fell upon the airfield. This prompted our group to take a quick walk back to the stand for some Phantom, Spook and squadron merchandise.
Slowly, we made our way over to a couple of derelict Northrop RF-5 Freedom Fighters, cannibalised and left to rot on a hard standing, with one being left to the perils of mother nature. It was quite interesting to see these once powerful aircraft, so sleek, so fast and dangerous at the same time, now left forlorn and unloved. This did, however, give us something different to photograph; man made objects being consumed by mother nature.
Suddenly we heard a noise: that unmistakable whine and spool of those J79s again, as a Phew start-ups sounded out against the silence. We quickly realised we were nowhere near the place we needed to be, prompting a mad dash (with fully laden bags) back to the crowd line. We were in luck, the take-off point was across from where we were stood but with the same problem we had been struggling with all day… heat haze. I still managed a couple photos of all three Phantoms lining up for a photo-op on the other side of the runway, but they weren’t exactly pin sharp. Soon, they were gingerly heading onto the runway and with a push of the throttle, one by one headed into the wild blue yonder in a cacophony of sound, afterburner and thousands of clicks as the ‘togs followed them into the skies with their lenses (possibly being the most these Phantoms had been shot at so much in their operational lives!). Doubling back on themselves they soon disappeared… but we could still easily distinguish where they were from the smoke emitted. It was soon evident they were practicing for the Phinal flight and break over the ceremony that was to come about the next day. After a couple of passes they started coming in with a Dassault Mirage 2000 and one of the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons from the local squadron before breaking off for landing.
Three soft landings and good chutes meant all three were able to taxi past us one last time before going back to their hangars for tomorrow. Just how trigger happy had I been? 1200 photos in that one day was a pretty good go for me considering the struggles with heat haze, but how many of them would be usable I had yet to see.
So ended day two of my Greek excursion with COAP. Still buzzing, we all then went out for food in the town of Larisa and took a look around, talking excitedly over the day's proceedings. After a great meal and some drinks, we all tiredly walked back to the hotel and our rooms. It was time to recharge my gear again, and with that completed, time to try and catch up on some much needed sleep.
Day two was very much of the same albeit a very sedate start. This time getting into the airbase was far more straight forward by going through the main gate. We were soon told to go and park further within the airfield, before walking toward the hangar areas where the retirement ceremonies were to be held. There was a long wait before anything really happened; there were speeches given in Greek and some Christian Orthodox singing, much to our amusement of not understanding what exactly was happening. Without warning the first of the three Phantoms was over the top of us in all its noisy glory, quickly followed by its two stablemates. As the sound faded, everything seemed to be still and quiet once more, and we waited for the pass we saw the day before. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before someone called out the tell-tale black streaks in the sky that gave away their position. It was the Vic formation with the Mirage 2000 and F-16 on either side once again, followed by a break by both aircraft. The three ship Phantom Phormation carried on toward Mount Olympus in the distance. There was one more pass this time, with each Phantom peeling away to go into the landing pattern, with the anti-climax that they didn’t taxi past the gathered crowd for a final wave. Instead, only one phantom came toward the ceremony, the black clad one, and it came in via the hangars, out of view until the last moment. On shutting down, the cockpits popped open; it was the very last time that Larisa AB would hear those J79s wind down as it would become a solely F-16 Air Base. With a number of handshakes, salutes and greetings to the crew and brass, it would give way to two displays by two different Demo teams of the Hellenic Air Force. First up was the quiet yet fast paced display by the Daedalus team, in their Beechcraft T-6a Texan II. After the high energy display it was then the turn of the HAF Demo team ‘Zeus’, displaying their Lockheed Martin F-16C Block 52+ Fighting Falcon. What felt so different compared to what I had seen of the Zeus Demo before, was how close he was to us, easily filling my viewfinder on a 70-200mm lens, and with the sun behind us everything seemed to fall into place very well. After the displays it would now be the turn of those attending to go to the Phantom, and other aircraft (Another F-16C and a restored RF-84 Thunderflash), for a closer look.
Unfortunately, this posed another problem for us, that of not being able to get clear shots of the Phantom in all its glory, it was time to get creative and work with what we had. After taking what little I could, we congregated slightly crestfallen at how it had panned out today, and not getting the opportunities we had hoped. It was at this point Rich came over and introduced Iaonnis Lekkas, the author and photographer of ‘The End of the Film’ book which chronicled the 64 year history of 348 Squadron. This is where I saw Rich really working hard to get us something different and special even after today, and we were not to be disappointed. By having this local contact we were invited back to the Squadron’s building for the party… what a twist to the day! Piling back into the minivan we then went in the opposite direction to all the other cars and further into the base!
Drogue chutes hung from the trees, a makeshift sunshade, the smell of Barbeque and the noise of music led us to the Squadron building and what seemed almost a family function to us interlopers. No one batted an eyelid at us, as we snacked on expertly cooked kebabs and helped ourselves to ice cooled beer, coke and water from the cut open spare fuel tanks (I have to get myself one of these!). After a bit of milling around we noticed a couple of ‘togs going across and toward the hard standings for the Phantoms and so in our infinite wisdom set off after them, to ensure we had an escort. It was a bit of a trek over some rough ground (the shortest route isn’t necessarily the easiest hey?) but we finally got to the special tail Phantom, just outside of its hard shelter and completely clutter free. We couldn’t believe our luck and diligently went about snapping away at the Lead Sled in all its beauty, up close and personal. It wasn’t long before the ground crew for the Phantoms came over and started fixing her up to push back into the shelter and out of view, so we moved on, back the way we came to the Black and Orange Phantom, along with colour coordinated ladder. What was great about this hard shelter was the revetment surrounding it gave us unfettered access to look down from above. Moving down and in close it was then time for those selfies (of course who wouldn't take advantage of this?!), then returning to the Squadron building, having a walk through its hallowed halls covered in photos of previous crews and planes from its entire history, and managing to bag us some posters. It was then time to bug out on the minivan back to the hotel before driving to the seaside resort Neoi Poroi for some food and relaxing evening before heading back to the hotel before the next day's journey back to Athens.
It was a fairly long journey back to Athens, broken only by the spectacular scenery along the way. Great weather coupled with rocky mountains and vast lakes along coastal like roads was like something out of a movie. Our final destination was Athens airport, but before then was a scheduled stop at the Hellenic Air Force Museum at Acharnes, just outside of Athens.
Getting into the HAF Museum is no easy business, with having to hand over passports to enter and passing fully armed guards in the process. They were cheerful enough to us which was nice and a quick bus journey into the airbase that the museum resides on brought us up to the set of hangars they house some of their exhibits in. Most of what this museum has is outside which bears the brunt of the Greek weather, which being dry and mostly sunny, fades a lot of the airframes and doesn’t help the canopies much at the best of times. We had a slight briefing from one of the members of staff who basically said anything goes photo-wise but to NOT photograph the control tower outside. Shooting indoors was quite the struggle, especially since I had been used to shooting outside with plenty of light, and this posed its own challenges with very little light in the hangars. It was at this stage that I really saw how Steven Comber gets his stellar shots, for which I take my hat off, because he really works to get a perspective that few rarely see let alone think of. Watching the master at work really made me think more about what to look for, to change it up and take something different from the norm. Moving outside once again it was time to change the settings and start photographing the outside exhibits. Chickasaws, Starfighters, Corsair IIs, Freedom Fighters, C47s, Delta Daggers and an Albatross, the difference in airframes was staggering and it was also the very first time I had ever set eyes on the Delta Dagger; I was surprised at how large that jet is. One of the most interesting parts of the viewable exhibits was the two rows of dilapidated Grumman Schweizer G.164 G Ag-Cats, used by the 359 Public Services Air Unit, retired some years previously, for suppressing wildfires during dry seasons. These chunky, bi-wing, fabric covered planes looked very odd near the sleek and futuristic airframes of the HAF fighter force, but really gave us something different to photograph. Of all the aircraft Rich has seen in his lifetime, I never would have thought he would get so excited about these chunky looking biplanes.
We were also treated to a special tour of a section of the museum that is not always available to the general public, that of airframes awaiting restoration again thanks to the negotiating skills of the COAP team. With our escort we were shown the holding area that housed many different airframes, from C47s, to F104s, Nord Noratlas and even the recovered wreckage of an old Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-52. This area, I have to say, was absolutely incredible with some pretty rare airframes but also the state in which these were kept. Most, save for the C47s, were in a stripped paint look and some pretty badly damaged to say the least, but the abundance of parts for them was very evident. Our guide told us that the biggest problem they had was bodies to help finish the airframes and that the budgets were there for their completion. I made sure to take many photos of this area at as many angles as possible to make sure I got the most of this behind the scenes look. We walked back to the hangar and waited a bit longer, when I queried with Rich what we were waiting for he stated that it would not be long before the light was in the right place for shots outside. I had never really thought about it, but having basically retaken the same photos outside the difference was night and day. Soon, it was back to the minivan after collecting our passports and off to the airport for the homeward leg.
So ended my first overseas assignment with COAP, and the aviation photographer masters Rich and Steve. It all seemed over so very quickly, with so much action packed into such a small amount of time. I have made some great friends thanks to this trip, with camaraderie and banter that kept you on your toes throughout the entire time. I have been asked many times how much it cost and every time I smile politely and just say it was worth every single penny to have been a part of such a momentous time and place. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I change anything about what I did? Maybe I would take even more photos. And what have I taken away from this? That in photography you should always be open to change and to learn from others… oh! And the toilet roll cardboard tube is great for keeping your posters rolled up tightly!
This was, most definitely, one of THE highlights of my 2017, with memories and friends that will last a lifetime. I have been on a number of COAP trips within the UK since and plan to do many more with more overseas excursions with any luck.
FULL DISC AVIATION CONTRIBUTOR | ROBERT GRIFFITHS | WALES
Since I can remember I have always been fascinated with anything even remotely related to aviation. From its history, the engineering and science, its art, its creativity and the way it has shaped and moulded the world into what we know today. I was taken to my first ever air show at 18 months old, on a family outing to RAF St. Athan. From that point on something gripped me and became my life. Everything I did, everything i created was, and still is, related to aviation.