I wasn't sure whether my trip to Greece was going to be amazing or a time spent frustrated. But the Hellenic Air Force sent me a great birthday present, a week before travelling, with an email confirming that I was able to attend both the media day for Exercise Iniochos, at Andravida AB and also Kalamata AB for a base visit.
Tuesday morning and it was up early and down to Gatwick Airport to catch the summer season easyJet flight to Kalamata. After a long walk out to our pier we were greeted by G-UZHC an Airbus A320 NEO. Having not been on a NEO before I was interested to hear the noise difference.
A smooth flight was interrupted as we started our approach to Kalamata, coming into some turbulent air as we descended over the mountains north of Kalamata. Turning into land from the south and looking into the blue sky I watched three vapour trails chasing each other across the sky. Fighter aircraft of some description dog fighting above our airliner was a good omen for the rest of this 5 day trip.
After a good landing we turned and started our taxi to the small terminal and I had my first chance to see what would be awaiting me on Friday with Beechcraft T-6 Texan IIs under their sun shelters and two lines of T-2 Buckeyes looking inviting in the Greek sunshine.
Bag collected and hire car loaded, now it was time to head to the local Aldi to get some food and water for the next few days whilst travelling around. The sound of distant jet noise in the skies over the Mediterranean was wetting my appetite for more than the croissants we had just bought.
The drive up through the olive groves north of Kalamata and across the mountains down towards the Ionian Sea was relaxing and offered some stunning views. Before heading to our apartment, that would be home for the next two nights, we decided to go down to the beach and enjoy the warm sun.
We were staying at Marion Apartments on the outside the town of Kourouta. The second floor apartment had a full kitchen and balcony overlooking the pool and bar area with views out to the sea. Sat on the balcony relaxing, two F-35 Lightning IIs came into view and headed the short distance to run and break over Andravida. A taste of what i would be seeing tomorrow.
Exercise Iniochos, Andravida
The media event was due to start at 09:00 and I was dropped off at the main entrance by 08:30 and walked to the guard house for registration. There was a large gathering of people from various countries around the world all handing over their passports that were securely kept in a plastic carrier bag!
I've seen people have t-shirts and caps made for important events but I was surprised to see group of Italians had had softshell coats made to signify the important milestone for the Aeronautica Militare F-35A in attending Iniochos.
Whilst waiting, jet noise filled the air as multiple F-4E Phantom IIs and Mirage 2000s started up and seemed to depart for a single circuit and land again, appearing to complete an air test.
A bus arrived and it loaded up with people but there wasn't enough room on this one so I waited around and started chatting to a Japanese photographer who had been to Frisian Flag at Leeuwarden, Netherlands before this and was heading home soon after. An interesting trip for him like if I headed to Japan. The next bus arrived and was fairly empty so there was room for me to open my bag and set up my camera as I thought we would be driving passed the HAS's where the Hellenic F-4Es are located. Instead we drove around the runway to the north which was where the Israeli Air Force had a pan all to themselves. This was a sight I didn't think I would see with two lines of F-16s, both Cs and Ds, in their distinctive sand camo scheme with their large squadron insignia's emblazoned on the tails.
After passing the Air Tactics Centre (ATC) and Fighter Weapons School (FWS) the bus arrived at the disused runway and everyone disembarked and headed along the cut path towards the area marked with hazard tape. The space soon filled up and everyone started to get their cameras out and set up. While waiting for the first departures people crossed the tape and started flattening the long grass that was growing so it wouldn't be in their photos.
Soon it was time for the mass departure of the multiple aircraft types participating in Iniochos. Watching aircraft appear from all corners of the base and head towards the active runway was exciting, but not as exhilarating as having them thunder past on full afterburner. The sound and feel of being that close to a departing aircraft is something that will never get old.
With the F-35s powerful single engine I thought it would be the loudest and even hurt my ears even though my ear plugs, but it was the F-16s from the Hellenic, Israeli and United States Air Force that crackled and made my ear drums vibrate.
Watching in anticipation suddenly Phantom after Phantom started to move and head out for departure. This was an awesome sight having these veteran fighter aircraft so close, which could be the last time I see them in such close proximity.
After 60+ aircraft had departed it wasn't long before the first flights started to return. Some completing run and breaks with other lining up to land after heading down wind. Before the final aircraft had landed we were ushered back onto the buses and towards an area close to the control tower, again hazard taped off, but this was not the best due to the suns position being behind the aircraft. No matter it was a good place for a sit down and to have a drink and something to eat in the Greek sunshine.
I thought that we would be waiting at the tower until the next wave of aircraft but the buses appeared and we were off again. This time we stopped at the ATC and had the opportunity to purchase some more water and also patches and key rings. It was interesting to look over the ATC and see the personnel from all the invited air forces going in and out of the planning rooms with to discuss their flight plans for the next missions.
We were then invited to attend a briefing from the Commander of the FWS to explain how exercise Iniochos works with regards to day to day missions and the build up through the exercise.
A full report on the exercise specifically can be found at http://globalairpower.net/
Once the briefing had finished we boarded the buses and it was back to the control tower area where the hazard taped area had been extended and there was more space for all the photographers. In the afternoon sun it was great to have the next wave of 60+ aircraft taxi passed and depart into the hazy skies above Andravida.
After the final arrival it was time to head back to the main gate and await my name to be called out to collect my passport. What a day it had been and I was looking forward to having some dinner. We headed into the local town to a taverna called alati & piperi which is frequented by many of the personnel from the exercise and serves excellent local food.
After an great breakfast and the car packed it was time to head back south towards Kalamata for the second part of the plane fest. A stop on the way was the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Olympia. Although I had been the year previous it was great to see this site with the sun out and with the trees in blossom.
On the drive down from Olympia we watched as the sun disappeared behind some dark and looming clouds that were caught on the mountainous areas above Kalamata. This did not bode well for tomorrows base visit to the 120 PEA and photographing their T-2 Buckeyes and T-6 Texan IIs.
I was due at Kalamata AB at 08:00, to meet the my escort for the day and arrived at the gate as rain started to fall from the overcast skies. Hopefully the weather would change through the day and it would brighten up.
After signing a few forms it was time to board my ride for the day, a Citroen Berlingo. First stop was the flight line of the T-2 Buckeyes of 362 and 363 MEA. As we crossed the large ramp towards the long line of T-2s there were pilots crewing in to head out on a training mission. This was what i wanted to see, this rare and old jet trainer take to the sky.
Whilst waiting for the start up and departure of the T-2 there were a number of T-6 Texan IIs completing touch and goes with others readying to take off at the end of the Kalamata runway.
The T-2s engines started with a high pitched whine and then they were both running and the whine got slightly deeper but even with ear plugs it was quite piercing. The Buckeye began to taxi after the chocks were removed and the ground crew signalled all was clear to move.
The Buckeye turned onto the runway after final checks and we moved closer towards the long line of other Buckeyes to watch and photograph the departure. The General Electric J85-GE-4 turbojets crackled into life as the aircraft powered down the runway and lifted off into to grey skies. Well if that was all I had seen today I would've been happy but there was more close encounters to come.
Heading away from the ramp I was taken to all of the maintenance and storage hangers for the 362 and 363 MEA. It was interesting to see the amount of aircraft still at the base in various states of maintenance and repair. Sadly in the hanger was the special scheme T-2 in celebrating 40 years of training by the 363 MEA. Although not photographed there were many stored Buckeyes and T-37 Tweets across the base as we travelled to our next stop.
At the north end of the airfield are the hangers and sun shelters for 361 and 364 MEA flying the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II. Climbing out of the Berlingo outside one of the hangers I was introduced to a maintenance engineer who was training with the 361 MEA. A number of the Texan IIs started to return after their morning training flights and as they taxied back to their sun shelters i was allowed, with supervision, to get close to the taxiways which was even too close for photos with my phone!
With the Hellenic T-6 Texan II display team being reported to be flying at the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2019, it was a great opportunity to see the 'Daedalus' scheme at close proximity.
Whilst stood photographing the Texans a pair of Hellenic Air Force Mirage 2000s completed a run and break to land. I was warned that I wasn't to photograph these aircraft as they were not based aircraft and there wasn't permission from their squadron or base. This was a shame as they completed a missed approach and stayed low banking over the hangers!
As the crews were changing for the next round of flights we headed down towards the control tower. We entered the tower and climbed the tightest spiral stair case i've been up and now understood why my guide said he would carry my bag whilst I carried my cameras. Once at the top I found a good location on the corner of the tower, out of the sight lines of the controllers and squadron personnel who were controlling all today's flights. It was interesting to see how this tower differed from the USAF ones I have been in in the UK, with there being less personnel and a more relaxed, but still professional, atmosphere.
The view offered was fantastic but at that point the sun came out and with the runway being north/south this meant the aircraft were backlit as they departed and completed missed approaches. We stayed at the tower until the final aircraft landed and then drove to the small shop onsite selling sandwiches and drinks.
There was still time before the first of the afternoon flights would depart, so I asked if we could have a look around the T-2 flight line again for some different angles of this 1950s training aircraft. Wandering along the line of Buckeyes I could see personnel by the SAR Augusta Bell AB-205. I asked if we could head down to where the helicopter was to see if it was departing. Soon after arriving close to the AB-205 the crew walked from the building near the hangers and completed their pre-flight checks removing all the covers and unhooking all the tie down straps.
Within 10 minutes the rotor started to turn and one of the crew stayed outside the helicopter to complete more checks. The distinctive thud from the twin-bladed rotor filled the air and as the power was applied and the AB-205 lifted off the asphalt and headed out on its training mission.
With the afternoon training flights now starting there was an opportunity to head to a different vantage point close the the taxiway and touchdown point for runway 17. I photographed the Texan IIs completing approaches and taxing past me for about an hour before it was time to head back to the security office Before having my photographs checked to ensure they could be published I managed to shoot the preserved aircraft at the main gates.
With checks completed I was free to head back to the hotel and go on and on about what a day i'd had!
The evening was spent wandering around the old town of Kalamata and dinner at a lovely taverna which served great food and cold local beer, giving me time to think back over the last few days on this Greek adventure.
The flight back the next day was on another easyJet NEO which was only half full, allowing space to spread out. With the flight landing at about 15:00 there was time to have a look through some of my shots that evening and remember a very memorable trip.
Thank you to Alexis for the company and driving some of the way across Greece and to the personnel at both bases including: -
British Embassy Athens - C. makropoulo
Andravida AB - Lt. Col. Gkioles
Kalamata AB - Commander Brig. Gen. Petalas, Lt. Col. Kampanarakis and CMASGT Giannopoulos
Soon be time for the next trip to Mont-de-Marsan, France for Tiger Meet 2019! The aviation fix will continue in May!