Greek-US interoperability leaves lasting roots in Souda Bay

SOUDA BAY, Greece -- For millennia, the island of Crete has served as a launch pad for legends, both historical and mythical.

Another milestone would be recorded in the history of the more than 3,000-square mile island; but it would not be etched by the Greek god Zeus's lighting bolts on slabs of marble, but through contrails in the sky forged by F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft.

U.S. and Hellenic air forces completed a flying training deployment Jan. 16 through Feb. 13 at Souda Bay, Greece. The deployment aimed to develop and improve air readiness while expanding strategic and operational ties between the two NATO partners.

The training featured the second pairing between the U.S. Air Forces in Europe's 480th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and the Hellenic air force's 115th Combat Wing's 340th and 343rd Fighter Squadrons since August 2014.

"The participation of the 480th EFS gives us both the essential means in maintaining and enhancing the ability of our personnel to work together, which will be increasingly important to meet future challenges as allied air forces," said Hellenic air force Lt. Col. Athanasios Antonakakis, 340th FS commander.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. David Berkland, 480th EFS commander, attributed much of the success of the recent FTD to having earlier developed a working relationship between the two air forces.

"If we now have a rock-solid friendship with the HAF, it's because we built the foundation of the relationship last time - it was here before we stepped off our aircraft this time," Berkland said. "And because we already had the relationship, we've been able to achieve more than last time."

Berkland also said the chance for his squadron's pilots to simulate tactics with their Greek counterparts, including Hellenic air force F-4 Phantom II and Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft, underscored how dealing with another nation reflects the reality of aerial combat in the 21st century.

The training, as U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Gallemore, 480th EFS director of operations, explained, involved a building block approach for pilots, beginning with basic fighter maneuvers such as offensive, defensive or neutral one-versus-one dogfight scenarios.

Pilots eventually graduate to two-versus-one engagements aiming to eliminate any adversary who threatens the formation. The next step pits a team of four fighters against a number of adversaries to employ air-to-air tactics to connect the 480th EFS' primary mission of offensive counter-air.

"I'm sure the exchange of views and experiences between us in regard to the mission-planning, execution, as well as debriefing, made the greatest possible benefits for both sides," Antonakakis said. "Obviously, the pilots reaped a lot of rewards from the bilateral training."

In addition to the curriculum, Greek airspace remains relatively unrestricted and stretches from Crete across mainland Greece and the Aegean Sea.

And perhaps no words written in an article or a lone picture can fully capture the ultimate utility pilots can gain from flying over the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean Sea. 

"It's like you unleash the machine - there is virtually no limit to what you can do with the jet," Berkland said. "In some ways, that's how it's going to be in combat. We want these young pilots to know and have a background of flying this airplane without any limits placed on them. 'Go as fast as you can and as high as you can.' 'Get down on the surface as low and as fast as you can go.'"

To that end, the pilots did just that: flying at supersonic speeds exceeding 1,000 miles per hour and rivaling heights varying between 48,000 feet down to as low as hundreds of feet above the waters.

"That allows you to exploit some capabilities and some training techniques that we don't often see," Gallemore said. "To be able to fly out here and alongside the Greek air force and train in their unlimited airspace is absolutely phenomenal."

Flying may have served as a primary focus of the training, but perhaps nothing symbolized the continuing Greek-U.S. partnership more than a welcoming gesture made by one of the Greek squadrons.

Soon after the 480th EFS's arrival at Souda Bay, the 343rd FS welcomed their American counterparts with a surprise: a small olive tree that they planted together within view of the squadron's canteen window facing the flightline.

"The olive tree shares an important history since the ancient times," said Helenic air force Maj. Anthanasios Papamanolis, 343rd FS director of operations. "We consider it to be the tree of peace. In order to show the Americans our appreciation and our friendship, it was the only choice to plant an olive tree. An olive tree usually lasts thousands of years, and you'll find here in Crete that last some one or two thousand years. It symbolizes that our friendship will last."

A stone with inscriptions in ancient Greek and English accompanied the tree during its planting with "Building rock-solid friendships" written for the 480th EFS and a quote from the Greek Democrates: "Life doesn't mean anything if you don't have friends."

Berkland said the Greeks could not have chosen a better representation - a tree of peace rooted during warfighting training - of the Greek-U.S. relationship as well as their team built upon mutual respect. 

"Partnerships like this, where we team up and establish our ability to cooperate and conduct contingency operations together, are the best way to ensure peace," Berkland said. "We ensure peace and regional stability when we partner up with a country like Greece and display our ability to conduct combined military operations. Perhaps that is the best deterrent: we are ready, we have partners who are ready to fly with us, and therefore we make a more stable Europe, Africa, Mediterranean region and world. I believe this is our best chance for peace."

"We thank the Americans for their time flying with us and cooperating with us," Papamanolis said. "We tried to do our best to gain everything we can and always maintain safety within the flights. We hope that they will come again soon."

To see more pictures of the FTD, visit the following photo set on Flickr.