We spoke to Lt. Col. Dimitris Papadimitriou, the commander of the squadron. He has over 2.000 flight hours on the Phantom, is evidently proud of the squadron, and is keen to explain its history: “348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron is one of the older and most historical squadrons in the Hellenic Air Force. It was set up initially as 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Flight under the 112 Combat Wing in 1953.” Back then, it was operating with F-84G aircraft which had been altered to perform tactical recce missions. Two years later the 348 flight became a squadron, named the 348 Mira Taktikis Anagnoriseos (MTA; Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron) ‘Mátia’ (‘Eyes’), and was provided with RT-33 and later with RF-84F aircraft.
The Colonel explains why there are two types of RF-4 Phantom operating in the squadron. “In 1979 The RF-4E aircraft entered the inventory of the 348 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. They were new aircraft supplied by the USAF, and were delivered in the same camouflage pattern they flew the whole era. In the summer of 1993, the Hellenic Air Force received 27 more RF-4E aircraft from the German Air Force, which were added to squadron’s fleet. They had a much more dark green camouflage pattern, and were not repainted as well.”
The RF-4E Phantom II is designed from birth to be used for tactical reconnaissance. One of the squadrons instructor pilots, Captain Nik Sofologis, “So'ph'os” (meaning “wise man”, and with the 'ph' for Phantom) informs us of the parts where it all revolves around, the cameras. He starts: “The RF-4 is an old aircraft which uses cameras which are analog cameras that record frames on black and white film. When you see the aircraft, you'll notice three glasses, two are on the sides and one is on the bottom. Those are the three camera stations.” Combinations of photographic equipment can be equipped, depending on the mission. Two of the camera types are built by CAI, the KS-87B classic camera, and the KS-127A Long Range Oblique Photography (LOROP) cameras. For panoramic view, KA-56E cameras are used for low altitude, and KA-91B for high altitude. For specific day or night missions the near-infrared AAD-5 cameras can be used.
Especially the 66-inch (1676mm) long range LOROP cameras impresses Captain Sofologis. “It's a big camera, it takes all the stations. It was used to take strategic pictures from a great altitude, I can remember 35,000ft (10,668m). We can get great pictures with a great ground resolution. We are able to zoom in very far, and find in the frame what we need.
The digital successor
After retirement of the RF-4, the reconnaissance tasks will be performed by F-16's, equipped with recce pods. Captain Sofologis tries to make a comparison between the RF-4, and the DB-110 reconnaissance pod under the F-16. The pod takes digital images: “It is fully autonomous and has the ability to take long range photos. Images are recorded on a solid state hard drive. It is great because it can take pictures in the infrared spectrum using electro-optical sensor technology during night or day operations to see extra details on targets that we need.” But still, there's an advantage that the RF-4 has, that the F-16 doesn't have. 'Sophos' explains: “In the F-16 you must plan the exact route on the ground and you have to follow that specific route. When I get to a specific waypoint on my route, the camera opens automatically and shoots photos from these areas, like a box with overlaps.” This means there is a small target of opportunity on the F-16, but it doesn't have the flexibility with the cameras that are on board the RF-4.
In the RF-4, the co-pilot is the primary user of the camera, and he can operate the camera to take the pictures at the point he wants. “The backseater is the main operator of the cameras. The pilot in front has two means of detecting where he's taking pictures. In front there is a viewfinder, and on the sides you had circles. If the target you wanted was inside the circle, that is the frame. In the Phantom, we can take a photo of anything we want.” With the F-16 with the DB-110 recce pod there is a possibility to send small pictures via a form of data link to a ground station. For the full download the aircraft must land, as these images are too large to transfer via wireless communication.
2nd vs 4th generation aircraft The RF-4 is an aircraft that has been in service for a very long time, but it's getting harder to operate in a modern environment. The captain states: Generally speaking, its a great aircraft, but the big disadvantage is that it lacks electronics. Nowadays, we are trying very hard to follow new tactics with the 2nd generation Phantom, while a big part of the air force uses 4th generation aircraft. If you want to use the RF-4 to the limits, you must try very hard.
The primary role of the 348 T.R.S squadron is to perform tactical reconnaissance according to the needs of all three branches of the Hellenic military. “The experience from recent combat situations has shown that the success of modern operations does not depend on the amount of armed forces, but on the effective combination of methodical and efficient reconnaissance” says squadron commander Papadimitriou. “The ability to perform reconnaissance missions gives substantial strategic advantage to a country by providing invaluable information for mission planning and target recognition. The planning of combat attack missions largely depends on the amount of information collected by aircraft during recce missions.”
Recce missions can also be flown to provide battle damage assessment after strike aircraft have released their weapons to a target. Captain Sofologis: “After a specific time we take photos for further analysis about the functionality of the attack and destruction of the target. The purpose of the photos is for our staff to see if an extra group of forces has to re-attack this specific target or if we achieved the desired effect on the target.” The commander adds: “During critical periods the 348 T.R.S is the first Squadron to depart and the last to land.”
The squadron also carries out missions to the benefit of social services such as photographing fires. Captain Sofologis recalls one of those missions: There was a wide spread fire the civil officers wanted to see where the border line of the fire was, so with our cameras we were taking pictures, making a mosaic of the area. In two hours after the landing they had a clear image of the interest area.” Another use for the RF-4 was finding water: “The IR camera had the opportunity to help in finding water in some areas that didn't have enough water. In one city, it was very helpful.”
But the RF-4 had an electronic warfare task too. Making use of the ASTAC pod, an airborne electronic reconnaissance system, emissions from land-based radars and weapon systems could be intercepted and analyzed. With the ASTAC pod targeted radar emitters could be located and identified precisely and quickly in order to prepare future strikes. Captain Sofologis clarifies: “We were using trigonometry to find the geographic position of the emitters. It was a useful tool to extract the electronic order of battle of the enemy.”
Another assignment of the RF-4 Phantom, that wasn't related to gaining information was the dispensing of aluminum strips, or chaff via the ALE-40 chaff dispensers. “We would make corridors to jam enemy radars to produce false targets, or to damage or make blind spots to the enemies radar picture in order to blind or distract the enemy.”
Before flying an RF-4, students have to follow a certain path. All of them go through the Hellenic Air Force Academy, The HAFA has the same standards for all the pilots. Sofologis explains: “In the first year we fly the Cessna T-41 and after that the T-6 Texan. In the third year or after you graduate from the HAFA we fly the T-2 Buckeye. Then you must decide if you want to go to an air to air squadron, or go to an air to ground squadron, and if you like the air to ground squadron you must go to the specific squadrons we have in Greece.” The F-16 squadrons are multi-role but some of them have air defence as a primary role, and others have the air to ground missions. The mindset is that all the squadrons are multi-role. The 348 squadron is an exception, it has a unique role as reconnaissance unit. “So after the tree training aircraft we will come here with the RF-4, we start flying at the back seat for about three to five years and after in the back seat we finally go in front, to fly the aircraft. You must have at least 300 hours in the back seat to become an RF-4 pilot.” Commander Papadimitriou adds: “After the crews have been certified as combat ready, they go through subsequent programs to maintain their skills.”
When asking the pilots about the experiences they've had in the recce Phantoms, they smile. ”We are famous about low level flying. Low level navigation is the only way for the RF-4 to avoid detection from the enemies radar, so the ground is our friend. Personally speaking, we have a lot of beautiful experience from low level navigation.” They all love the Phantom very much, and are sad to see them go. 'Sophos' remembers: “When I was younger I was very impressed about what our cameras could do, and how much the air force was based on this aircraft. So much intel about enemy forces could be gathered. I was also impressed, because it's very great to think that an aircraft that was designed in the 1950s has all these opportunities. It can take pictures traveling up to 600 miles an hour from altitudes up to 30.000 feet. For its time systems that you could not imagine. My previous car did not have ABS, but the Phantom has.” The official date for the RF-4E’s withdrawal is past, and the last flight has landed. The Rf-4s will be missed by pilots and enthusiasts alike.