Exercise Report : Exercise Early Bird 2021 - Larissa, Greece
Exercise EARLY BIRD 2021 - Larissa, Greece
U.S. Air Force 493rd Fighter Squadron exercise ASTRAL KNIGHT deployment
The Hellenic Air Force's hosted the F-15C/D Eagles of the 493rd FS / 48th FW for two weeks in May 2021 at Larissa air base of the 110 Combat Wing, home of the 337 Squadron. Report and photos by George Karavantos.
Exercise Astral Knight / Early Bird
From May 5th until the 21st, the 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath deployed 12 F-15C/D Eagles and more than 250 Airmen from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, and other supporting units to Larissa air base in Greece in order to participate in exercise Astral Knight 2021.
Astral Knight is a U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa-led joint multinational exercise that takes place in the Adriatic region. It aims to enhance the command and control integration, coordination and interoperability of air, land and sea capabilities, and overlapping operations into the integrated air and missile defense enterprise.
The Astral Knight 2021 took place from 13 to 21 of May in multiple locations in Southern Europe (Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy and Slovenia) and involved various units of the U.S. Armed Forces and from Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy and Slovenia. See also the Astral Knight 2021 exercise report from Aviano AB in Italy.
During their stay in Greece, the American aircrews had the chance to train with all fighter types in the Hellenic Air Force inventory in different scenarios as part of the smaller exercise named "Early Bird", besides their Astral Knight contribution. Besides the Larissa based 337 Squadron F-16C/D Block 52+s of the 110 Combat Wing, some Greek F-16s from other bases along with Mirage 2000 and F-4 Phantom II fighters were involved in various scenarios for air defense, close air support and ground attack over the Greek mainland and the Aegean Sea. This training exercise was held under the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) signed by Greece and the USA.
“Forward deploying our forces to places like Greece gives us the opportunity to meet face to face with our partners and allies, which really maximizes the training that we get and increases our lethality”, said Lt. Col. Todd Pearson, 493rd Fighter Squadron commander. “Working with the HAF has been fantastic. They are very gracious hosts and a very capable, credible ally. We have capitalized on the training opportunities with them, and we have both come out of this better.”
Each day two waves of fighters were launched, one during the morning and one in the afternoon. The morning sorties involved air-air refueling, so each mission lasted 4-5 hours.
The exercise's scenarios involved a wide spectrum of air-air but also air-ground missions like Air Superiority / Supremacy missions and strike missions against some high value ground targets during which the F-15 Eagles were providing air cover.
“The 48th FW lives, trains, and fights with our joint, allied, and partner nation brothers and sisters,” said Col. Jason A. Camilletti, 48th FW commander. “We fly wingtip to wingtip with them as we face ever-evolving strategic challenges. We will continue to participate in multinational exercises like this to enhance our warfighting readiness and our collective defense to ensure the Liberty Wing is always ready to own the skies.”
USAF 493rd Fighter Squadron "Grim Reapers"
The 493rd Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the 'Grim Reapers,' based at RAF Lakenheath, England is the only F-15C fighter squadron assigned to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe... The mission of the 493rd FS is to rapidly mobilize, generate, and deploy combat ready F-15C aircraft and crews to perform air superiority and air defense missions in support of U.S. and NATO forces and air defense commitments.
The unit has flown the F-15C Eagle fighter aircraft since 1994. These F-15C fighter aircraft. which have received the upgraded AESA radar APG-63(V)3, equipped with modern missiles like the AIM-120D and the AIM-9X, remain the spear of USAFE in this particular role. The squadron has earned multiple commendations and awards, including the Air Force Association's Hughes Trophy in 1997 and 1999 and the 2007 and 2014 Raytheon Trophies, for being recognized as the top fighter squadron in the United States Air Force.
The history of the 493rd FS can be traced in the beginning of World War II which had the role of Light Bombardment Squadron (on 20 Nov 1940), with A-18 Shrike II aircraft. Until 1944, the Wing changed several types, from A-18 to A-20 Havoc and later A-35 Vengeance. In 1942 it received the P-40 Warhawk, in 1943 the P-39 Airacobra and in 1944 the P-47 Thunderbolt. It was deactivated at the end of the War (Nov 1945) and it was reactivated in Jul 10, 1952 with F-84G Thunderjet and in 1954 it received the F-86F Sabre. From 1956, it received the first supersonic aircraft, the F-100 Super Sabre, and in 1960 it left France where it was stationed all that time. Since January 15, 1960, the 493rd FS has been stationed at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom under the command of the USAF 48th Fighter Wing.
In 1971, the squadron started its conversion to the McDonnell F-4D Phantom II, with the aircraft being transferred from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. The conversion to the F-4D took several years, with the last F-100 departing in August 1974. With the arrival of the Phantoms, the F-4s adopted a common tail code of "LK". This tail code lasted only a few months as in July and August 1972 the 48th Wing further recoded to LN.
The F-4's service with the squadron was short as they were transferred to the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing at Nellis Air Force Base Nevada. The 474th sent their General Dynamics F-111As to the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and the 347th sent their F-111Fs to the 48th Wing in early 1977. The F-111F stayed at RAF Lakenheath for many years and flew combat missions during operation El Dorado Canyon in Libya in 1986 and during operation Desert Storm in 1991 against Iraq.
In early February 1994 the 493rd squadron exchanged its F-111Fs for the F-15C/D Eagles. This marked the first time that the squadron was flying a fighter dedicated to air-to-air combat , after more than 50 years of performing the air-to-ground role. The squadron received the final production blocks of the F-15C Eagle.
During operation Allied Force in 1999, the Grim Reapers shot down four Yugoslavian MiG-29s during the first 72 hours of combat.The first two kills took place during the first night of the operations on the 24th of March 1999. Col. Lt. Caesar "Rico" Rodriguez (veteran from the Gulf War with two confirmed air kills) shot down a MiG-29 with AIM-120 missile. During the same night Cpt. Michael "Dozer" Shower fired 2 AIM-120 missiles at 37.000ft to shoot down another MiG-29. Two days later Cpt. Jeff "Claw" Hwang fired two AIM-120 missiles with a 4seconds interval to shoot down two more MiG-29s.
The year 2014 was a cornerstone in the history of F-15C in Europe. It had been decided that the F-15Cs would leave the European theatre, but the latest developments following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the heightened tensions felt in most Eastern European countries convinced the U.S. Congress that the withdrawal of these fighters could have detrimental effect to the stability of the region, postponing the plan indefinitely.
Despite its age, the F-15C is still a very capable fighter mastering the air superiority role. These Eagles have been upgraded with the new APG-63(V)3 AESA radar. The new AIM-120D missiles, the Link 16 data link, and the combination of JHMCS helmet and the AIM-9X missile, along with its superb performance means the Eagle today is still a great fighter, which undoubtedly paved the way for the F-15X procurement.
At the same time the preparations for the arrival of the first F-35 Lightning II at RAF Lakenheath have already started, the first aircraft to equip the 48th Fighter Wing are expected at the end of 2021. Eventually, the 48th Fighter Wing will host two squadrons of F-35As - a total of 48 aircraft - at Lakenheath. It is likely that the declaration of operational capability for the 495th will lead to the departure of the F-15C/Ds of the 493rd FS from Lakenheath, and that the 493rd FS will then become the second F-35A unit at the base.
Although the remaining time of the F-15C/Ds fighters, at least for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, is obviously short, the F-15C will continue to do what does best: be the leading air superiority fighter in Europe.
Hellenic Air Force 337 Squadron "Ghost"
The 337 Squadron (Fantasma - Ghost) of the 110 Combat Wing based at Larissa, is the third oldest and most legendary squadron of the Hellenic Air Force. It is one of the three squadrons which today operates the F-16 Block 52+s, the most numerous F-16 variant in the Greek inventory.
Its establishment began initially in liberated Greece in 1945 and was completed in 1947, when it joined the then Hellenic Royal Air Force, based at Elefsis Air Base. The official order of establishment and assumption of operational duties was dated March 30, 1948, flying the Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX.
In early 1952, 337 Squadron entered the jet age having received the T-33A Shooting Star. In October 1952, the squadron redeployed from Elefsis to the Larissa air base to re-equip with F-84G Thunderjet fighter-bomber.
In January 1960, the Squadron transitioned to 337 All-Weather Squadron, assigned to the 112 Combat Wing, returning to Elefsis and acquiring the F-86D Sabre fighter interceptor.
The 337 All-Weather Squadron stopped operating on 31 May 1967 and was re-established on 16 November 1967 at the 111 Combat Wing in Nea Anchialos as 337 Day Intercept Squadron equipped with F-5A Freedom Fighters.
On March 31, 1978, the 337 Day Intercept Squadron was disbanded ceasing operation with the F-5 to be reformed at the 110 Combat Wing at Larissa air base on September 7, 1978, as the third squadron to be equipped with the F-4E Phantom II receiving aircraft additionally ordered with the Peace Icarus II program. The official ceremony re-establishing the 337 All-Weather Squadron took place on 23 September 1978. The RF-4Es, also part Peace Icarus II, went straight to the dedicated reconnaissance squadron based at Larissa, the 348 Squadron “Eyes” of the 110 Combat Wing..
The mission of the 337 All-Weather Squadron’s mission was still primarily the air defense of the central and northern Aegean Sea with a secondary bombing role according to HAF doctrine for the defense of the country.
The history kind of repeated itself when after 27 years, 337 Squadron, became the third squadron to operate the F-16C/D Block 52+.They were all initially delivered to 115 Combat Wing based at Souda, Crete, where the first two Block 52+ squadrons, 340 Squadron (Alepou - Fox) and 343 Squadron (Asteri - Star) are located. On 31st December 2005, the withdrawal of the last F-4E SRA aircraft from service ended the Phantom era for 337 Squadron, as all F-4E AUP upgraded aircraft went to 338 and 339 Squadron of the 117 Combat Wing at Andravida. 337 Squadron "Ghost" was re-established on May 15, 2006, with F-16 Block 52+ aircraft transferred from Crete providing 337 Squadron with true multi-role capabilities while again focusing on air defense over the northern Aegean Sea.
Report and photos by George Karavantos ( view portfolio )
Last Modified: 24 July 2021