Five new Fighting Falcons touched down for the first time at Araxos AB in Greece on 28 January 2010. The Block 52+ F-16s, painted in unique light blue and gray camouflage schemes, constitute the last of thirty F-16s the Hellenic Air Force is receiving as part of the Peace Xenia IV program.
This most recent Peace Xenia program, which covers the fourth purchase of F-16s by Greece, began in December 2005 when the Greek government signed an agreement for the delivery of thirty aircraft with an option for ten more. (The option for additional aircraft was not exercised.) The purchase consists of twenty single-seat F-16C models and ten two-seat F-16D models. All are powered by Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engines.
The new aircraft will populate two squadrons of 116 Combat Wing at Araxos—the 335 Tiger Squadron and a second squadron to be designated either 334 or 342. Both squadrons will be operational in 2010. A third squadron at Araxos, 336 Olympus Squadron, flies A-7E Corsairs. The A-7s are expected to remain in operation for at least two more years. Col. Kostas Vouzios, commander of 116 CW since June 2008, has overseen the transition to the new F-16s. “Araxos was not the high priority for our air force before the F-16s arrived,” he says. “Now it is. My job is to make sure the transition goes smoothly.”
Vouzios brings strong F-16 credentials to the task. Besides having more than 2,000 hours of flying time in the F-16, he was the former commander of 347 Squadron at Nea Anchialos AB, where he oversaw the HAF transition to Block 50 F-16s during the Peace Xenia II program. Vouzios’ experience at Nea Anchialos was further supplemented by his responsibilities in the planning and operations at HAF Tactical Air Force command during the Peace Xenia III program, which involved establishing the first Block 52+ F-16 squadrons for the HAF at Souda Bay AB on Crete.
“Our air force has accumulated a lot of experience through the years with several versions of the F-16,” Vouzios says. “We are using what we have learned to benefit the Peace Xenia IV program here at Araxos.”
Araxos is about a thirty-minute drive west along the northern Peloponnese coast from Patra, which is Greece’s third-largest city. Construction of the base began around 1958, and it became operational in 1962. The 336, the first squadron operating out of the base, began with the F-84F and later switched to the F-104G. The 335 was established on the base in 1977, also flying F-104Gs. The F-104s were replaced with A-7Es beginning in 1992. The 335 began receiving Block 52+ F-16s in May 2009.
Araxos was chosen as the newest F-16 base for both strategic and available space reasons. Another factor taken into account was the additional space that will open up when the A-7s retire from the HAF fleet. A sign just inside the front gate offers the first hint that new facilities are accompanying the new aircraft. The sign shows the Lockheed Martin logo.
Aside from producing the aircraft and providing technical assistance, the company functions as a general contractor for many of the infrastructure improvements associated with the F-16 as part of an offset program. The new facilities include two squadron hangars, two squadron operations buildings, and an engine maintenance building. The two squadrons also share a f light simulator building.
“We have the best aircraft facilities in our air force. They are above our expectations,” Vouzios says. “The new hangars are designed to be maintenance friendly, which they are. A new mentality comes with the new facilities.” The new mentality at Araxos can be viewed as a shift into the digital age. “Our most important improvement is a fiber optic network,” Vouzios continues. “We hope to have a paperless operational system fully functioning by the end of 2010. The network will link all activities at the base—logistics, base operations, and maintenance. Even our security and ground-based air defense units will be attached to the network.”
The 335 Squadron functions as an elemental node on that network. “As of November 2009, we have only two network terminals—one at our operations desk and another in the maintenance squadron—so we use the radio a lot and do a lot on paper,” notes Lt. Col. Evangelos Tzikas, commander of 335 Squadron. “But that situation will change quickly in the coming months as we incorporate more terminals in the squadron.” Half of the thirty F-16s and forty-five or so F-16 pilots at Araxos are assigned to 335 Squadron.
Four pilots in The 335 are pilots who learned to fly F-16s with the Arizona Ai r National Guard in Tucson. Five others are F-16 pilots who went through upgrade training in the United States to become instructor pilots. Most of the remaining pilots are former F-16 pilots who went through training at Souda Bay to transition from other versions of the F-16 to the new Block 52+.
The majority of the maintenance technicians are veterans of 335 Squadron when it was an A-7 squadron. For example, Capt. Eleftherios Karfitsas worked in quality assurance with the A-7 at Araxos before he was selected as chief of maintenance for the 335. He went to the United States to train for eleven months—three months at Sheppard AFB in Texas for a maintenance officer course and then eight months at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth for F-16 classes. “My training in Fort Worth was very helpful since I had no previous experience on F-16,” Karfitsas says.
While the majority of technicians have A-7 backgrounds, the squadron’s maintenance function began with a core group with solid F-16 experience. “We sent some of the experienced F-16 technicians to the US for training in systems unique to the Block 52+,” Karfitsas continues. “The technicians with no F-16 experience were sent to our Block 50 and Block 52 units at Nea Anchialos and Souda Bay for eighteen months.”
The F-16 is a radical change for maintenance technicians coming from the A-7. “Maintaining the F-16 is way different from the A-7 and the F-4 before that,” explains Karfitsas, who worked on F-4s from 1998 to 2004. “The Phantoms are very difficult for maintainers. The F-4 is difficult to access. Changing the main wheel on an F-4 takes three or four times the effort and time needed to change a wheel on the F-16. The F-16 maintenance system tells us where the problems are located. The data acquisition system in our Block 52 aircraft makes troubleshooting even easier.” The system, unique to the F-16s at Araxos, processes and stores flight data on the F-16 from a variety of sensors.
“The differences between the aircraft are huge, and the work itself is a major change,” adds CMSgt. Spiros Koutelidas, a former A-7 crew chief at Araxos who now works as an inspector on the F-16. “A simple inspection is difficult and dirty on the A-7 because the airplane is so old. We inspect and repair on the A-7. We inspect and fly on the F-16.”
The Block 52+ F-16s flown at Araxos are representative of the most advanced F-16s produced to date. They have additional fuel and payload capacity, new or improved avionics and sensors, color cockpit displays with enhanced pilot/vehicle interfaces, as well as many other improvements.
Conformal fuel tanks, which can be used in lieu of wing tanks, free the inner wing store stations and, if needed, double the primary air-to-ground payload. The tanks have a negligible effect on the F-16’s agility, handling qualities, flight limits, and signature.
The aircraft’s Northrop Grumman APG-68(V)9 multimode radar, one of the most advanced radars flying today, has more than fivefold faster processing speed and tenfold greater memory capacity over the previous radars. A high-resolution synthetic aperture radar mode allows the pilot to locate and recognize tactical ground targets from considerable distances.
The Block 52+ gains an enhanced capability for precision strike from standoff distances with advanced weapons, such as GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition and the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon. Air-to-air improvements include a thirty percent increase in detection range and functionality and tracking quality improvements in various modes.
The aircraft will employ LANTIRN targeting pods. In conjunction with laser guided bombs, the targeting pod provides day/night precision strikes from high altitudes. Among other uses, the targeting systems can be employed for seeker cueing of a variety of guided weapons and for covert air-to-air operations.
The cockpit features the joint helmet-mounted cueing system, color multifunctional displays, digital recording equipment, and large capacity data transfer cartridges. The aircraft has cockpit lighting and external strip lighting compatible with night vision goggles.
All two-seat models of the Block 52+ have a distinctive dorsal avionics compartment that allows these aircraft to accommodate all of the systems of the single-seat model in addition to more chaff/flare dispensers. The rear cockpit can be configured for either a weapon system operator or an instructor pilot and can be converted with a single switch in the cockpit.
While the systems above are shared with the Block 52+ aircraft at Souda Bay, the Araxos F-16s have several unique systems. Some of the more significant are a digital video recorder, Link 16 datalink, and a reconnaissance system. The digital video recorder captures relevant flight information for an entire sortie. Pilots don’t have to start and stop a recorder, for example, to capture critical portions of a training f light. The recorder is part of a ground debrief system with impressive features. “We can replay the mission from the perspective of any F-16 involved in that mission,” explains Capt. Demetrios Papageorgiou, a pilot with 335 Squadron.
“The system allows us to focus wherever we want without having to rewind one or more tapes. It records every detail of the flight, every communication. The system is one of the best things that came with these aircraft.”
While pilots have high praise for the new debrief system, all agree Link 16 datalink is the most impressive of the new capabilities. Link 16 provides secure, jam-resistant, high-volume data exchange on a multinode network.
“An air force will have to be part of the network to fly cooperative missions in the future, so Link 16 is a prerequisite for participating in joint operations,” explains Vouzios. “Link 16 provided a huge tactical advantage when we participated in a NATO exercise on Crete in November. For now, we are the only fighter unit in the Hellenic Air Force with Link 16, besides the only unit with airborne early warning asset and ground-based air defense units. But we want to upgrade all of our Block 52 and Block 50 aircraft with the datalink capability as soon as we can.”
The Goodrich DB-110 airborne reconnaissance system allows pilots to capture images day or night using electro-optical sensor technology. Images can be transmitted to analysts on the ground in real time for immediate exploitation and analysis. The DB-110 gives the HAF a long-range, high-resolution, standoff imaging capability to support tactical operations. “While both F-16 squadrons will fly multirole missions with air-to-ground as their primary role, reconnaissance will be a specialized role for the 335,” notes Tzikas. “We will begin working the reconnaissance mission after the squadron is declared operational in 2010.”
“We have to start our operational concept for the reconnaissance mission from scratch,” adds Vouzios. “The manufacturer provides the data on how the system works, but the operational tactics are country-specific. We can’t borrow from other users’ experience, so we have a lot to accomplish with this advanced capability.”
Tzikas sums up the capabilities of his squadron’s new jets: “I can do anything and see everything in this airplane. The situational awareness is excellent. If I miss something during a flight, I have made the mistake. I didn’t miss it because the airplane failed to detect it.”
“From the perspective of a younger pilot, the Block 52+ is a real challenge,” adds Lt. Panagiotopoulos Panagiotis, one of the few lieutenants in the HAF assigned to an advanced F-16 squadron. “The aircraft combines the F-16’s power and agility with a totally new cockpit environment that enhances situational awareness. It is a delight to fly.”
“Because we are f lying a brand new airplane with the most advanced systems, our air force is focused on us,” says Maj. Stratos Grivas, flight lead with the 335. “We have to perform to a set of expectations that are set very high by the capability of the Block 52+. To meet those expectations, we have to create a coherent team from many people with a variety of backgrounds and experience levels. We are getting there.”
“Apart from performing acceptance inspections and generating flights, we are organizing a new squadron,” adds Karfitsas. “The process is something like forming a new family—an interesting challenge.”
“We have the right people here to do the job,” Tzikas concludes. “I feel very proud of what we have accomplished so far. The aircraft are performing as expected. We have some of the best facilities in the Hellenic Air Force. We have the traditional operational weapons in place, and we are beginning to receive new precision-guided weapons. These new weapons will add even more capability to the aircraft. We are looking forward to the future.”