Phantom Photographers The end of a Phabulous Era
On the 5th of May, the official ceremony of the RF-4E Phantom II retirement took place in the airfield of Larissa. Along with them, 348 Squadron ceased its operation indefinitely after 64 years of existence. George Karavantos visited Larissa, two days before the ceremony and he is offering us a small taste of this historic moment. That was the end of the last Recce Phantoms in Europe, the last Recce Phantoms of NATO. The end of the film!
Without any doubt, 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron “Matia” (Eyes) was one of the oldest and most historical Squadrons of the HAF. It was the only Squadron of its kind which had as a primary role the Photo-reconnaissance.
It was initially established in 1953 and was based in Elefsina to cover the photo-reconnaissance needs of the former Royal Hellenic Air Force. It belonged to 112 Combat Wing and was initially named Flying Group, operating six modified F-84Gs which were carrying cameras to their left tip tank. In July of 1954, it was relocated to Larissa and one year later, in May of 1955, it received 20 new RT-33A Silver Star aircraft and was officially renamed Squadron. These modified RT-33A, were carrying cameras in their nose and on the back seat where the second pilot was seated.
On August of 1956, these aircraft were replaced with the more modern RF-84F Thunderflashes. In fact the Hellenic Air Force was the first Air Force of NATO which received this kind of aircraft and the older RT-33A were given to the Armeé de l’ Air.
The RF-4Es were ordered during the second Phantom order under the name Peace Icarus II which was signed on the 22nd of October 1976. Under this “Letter Of Intend”, Greece ordered 26 extra Phantoms, 8 of them were RF-4Es.
On November the 3rd 1978, the first RF-4E Phantom II, with serial number 77-1761 landed in Larissa airfield. All the deliveries were completed by the summer of 1979. Due to the fact that both types were equipping the 348 Sq, two separate “sub-squadrons” were made. The 348Sq/RF-4E and the 348Sq/RF-84F. Each one was operating its own aircraft and had its own personnel and infrastructure. In fact these two squadrons were finally merged almost 10 years later, on July of 1987.
The Greek RF-4E was identical to its older derivative, the RF-4C, apart from some small differences in its electrical equipment and they were all Block 66. Their serial numbers were from 77-357 up to 77-358 and from 77-1761 up to 77-1766. Their most important asset of their equipment was the KS-127A camera. These aircraft were also capable to carry 4 air to air missiles AIM-9 Sidewinders (AIM-9L, -P2 and –P4) for self-defence.
At the beginning of 1990s, HAF was desperately looking for a solution in the aspect of photo-reconnaissance. The total number of the RF-4E had been reduced to 6 and when the HAF decided to finally withdraw the aging RF-84F, a big gap was created without any visible solution. The best solution would have been the remaining RF-4C of USAF which, were being withdrawn from active duty, after the end of the Gulf War, but most of them (if not all of them) ended up to the Spanish Air Force. On March 29th 1991, the RF-84F aircraft were finally withdrawn after 34 years of active service, leaving behind very few RF-4Es to carry out this heavy task. A way out to this dead end was offered by the German Luftwaffe. In the early 90s, due to collapse of the Soviet Union an agreement was signed under CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) treaty amongst the NATO members and countries of the Warsaw convention for a great reduce of their armed forces. For that reason, in 1992, Luftwaffe (which was the largest export customer of the RF-4E) offered a great number of photo Phantoms to its two allies, Greece and Turkey (27 and 46 respectively). The first deliveries arrived in Tanagra airfield in May of 1993. Twenty of them were given to the squadron while the remaining 7 were kept for spare parts. Finally, after so many years, 348Sq had a fleet of only one type which of course had some minor differences but it was the same aircraft.
The fleet of the remaining Phantoms had been reduced to only three active aircraft during the last years. These were the two ex-Luftwaffe ones, the 7540 (Special Livery of the 60th anniversary) and the 7499 (Special Livery – The end of the film). The third one was the last American one, the 77-1765 with the ordinary Vietnam camo. The fate of these three aircraft has already been predetermined. In mid June, the 1765 and the 7540 will depart again for their last time from Larissa. The ex-German one will land at Tanagra to join the small collection of preserved aircraft which are being kept there, while the American one will fly to Andravida, which might be used for spare parts. The special one will take the place where it really belongs, as a gate guard next to the general headquarters of the base.
Despite the fact that the philosophy of aerial reconnaissance concerning the utilization of special photo-reconnaissance aircraft had already been changed for many years now, nobody could argue the fact that this “dinosaur” was offering a lot of advantages compare to other multi-mission tactical fighters which were only carrying a camera pod. The RF-4E was a specialized reconnaissance platform having assumed the role of electronic reconnaissance with the ASTAC pod during the last two decades. The efficiency of 348 Mira never left any room for doubt as crews were achieving high rates of mission successes while still using pretty much the same equipment that the RF-4E carried 39 years ago!
But during the recent years the RF-4E had become very demanding but most of all, very expensive in terms of usage and maintenance costs. Back in 2012, when HAF decided to start slowly the withdrawal of the type, it had been estimated that the cost per flying hour was around €16,350!
Detail shots of the RF-4E
Unlike its modernized brother, the RF-4E’s legendary history stops here after the completion of 39 successful years of operation while the Squadron which offered it a good care goes along with it. The Phabulous Photo Phantom will always be in our minds and in our hearts with its distinguishable shape and sound, roaring over the Greek skies.
Long Live the Legend!