It was one of the most complex IAF deployments abroad: During the past few weeks, the Israeli Helicopters Division took part in a unique training exercise in Greece alongside Hellenic helicopters and fighter jets
Helicopters on the Olympus: a large-scale training exercise was held in Larissa Airbase of the Hellenic Air Force, incorporating the Israeli Helicopters Division and the helicopters of the Hellenic Army land forces. For two weeks, the Israeli helicopters flew next to the Hellenic helicopters, simulated ejected pilot scenarios in unknown areas and flew over extremely high mountains which challenged the aircraft and the air crews.
The Israeli-Greek cooperation is gaining momentum over the last years and in light of the success of recent deployments, the mutual flights will probably continue in 2016. “We understand the great importance of the joint activity with the State of Israel, which contributes to the security of both countries”, stated Colonel Dormitis Stephzanki, the commander of Larissa Airbase. “Over the past few days we have been working together in a special way. The common language, the deep friendship and the things we’ve learnt together have contributed to the enhancement of cooperation between the forces. I believe that training in the airbase and the local field conditions has improved the IAF’s capability to deal with flying wherever needed”.
On Top of Mount Olympus
A number of platforms have taken part in the deployment: helicopters, “Beechcraft B-200” manned ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) planes and the “Hercules” C-130 heavy transport planes. “We flew over mountainous areas that do not exist in Israel and practiced long-distance flights from the airbase in Israel to Greece”, explained Lt. Col. Matan, commander of the Apache Longbow “Hornet” squadron and the deployment commander.
The airbase is surrounded by high mountains, including the famous 9,500 foot Mount Olympus, which posed a difficult challenge to the air crews. “The teams gained experience flying around high mountains and they would need it further when they would be required to fly in similar areas and of course, in real time”.
Five years ago this week, an IAF CH-53 helicopter crashed during a high altitude training exercise in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains, during which 6 IAF air crew members and a Romanian officer killed. For First Sergeant Dudi, an airborne technician from the “Nocturnal Birds” squadron, this was the first mission abroad he took part in, since the crash in Romania where his friends were killed. “It is not easy to take off for another deployment after losing my friends in that crash”, he says with grief. “The emotions are still present. A few days before the flight, some friends from the squadron and I took part in the memorial service of Captain Nir Lakrif, one of those killed in the accident. The experience of arriving here right after the ceremony and flying in places you are not familiar with is hard to express in words”.
In order to maintain optimal flight safety and in light of the lessons from the CH-53 crash, new safety procedures were set for this deployment. “We have reconsidered our whole approach to weather”, says Lt. Col. Matan. “We prepared tools and ways of action in advance in case we would have to stop the exercise, in addition to strict safety regulations”.
A Beechcraft B-200 “Tzofit” in the Skies of Greece
Pilots and air reconnaissance controllers from the “First” squadron have also taken part and practiced real-time intelligence gathering missions and directing helicopters around the Olympus. “Today, during every mission of the IAF, there is an aircraft that collects intelligence from the air”, emphasizes the commander of the exercise.
“This is an historic event for the airbase and for the ‘First’ squadron”, adds Colonel Y, commander of Sde-Dov Airbase. “This is the squadron’s first deployment and a unique one, as the forces first cooperated with foreign aircraft and operated under unknown conditions”.