“Getting High, Very High” – Confessions of a greek F-104G Pilot

Dimitris Tsannes, retired F104G pilot

First I want to clarify something, for the readers, in order to comprehend the political climate of the 70s, and the routine of a pilot in F104: This was the cold war era! In Europe there were hundreds of tactical fighters, ready to be armed with air launched nuclear weapons. These aircraft were in 15 minutes readiness (QRA), and their targets were in neighboring countries.

Most of the flights we did,were training missions, delivering these weapons,and to intercepting enemy fighters that had the nuclear strike role (interception role was covered in HAF by the F-5 Freedom Fighters, which they had the main role of guarding the greek airspace, until they were superceded by the Mirage F.1s).

At that time, the only way to reach your target in a strike mission was the very low flight. F-104G were the most suitable aircraft for that specific role, even if it was not designed for it.
Even if F104 was built to intercept high flying MiG-21s, (F104 had an amazing climbing rate: 55000 feet/1 min), in greek service was used mainly for strike role with nuclear or conventional weapons.

My firm personal belief was that a F104 armed with GAR8 air to air missiles, was able to intercept successfully any enemy strike aircraft penetrating greek airspace. Spanish air force used F104 in that role and had 0 accidents,while doing so.

In greek service, F104’s radar in air to air configuration had maintenance problems and practically was not operational in that mode. Despite this, I still remember myself going to the technicians, asking guidance about radar’s capabilities, and I was trying to figure out the box ways, to use the Air to Air Mode and the LN3 navigation system, by practicing with my wingman.

Most of our training, were Combat Strike Profile Missions. Very low flight towards the target, pull up to a 7000-8000 feet height above target, diving towards it at an 30 degrees angle, releasing the weapon. Turning around swiftly and return flying low or high, depending on the fuel left. At rare occasions we would fly to Northern Greece, to Cassandra in Chalcidiki peninsula, in order to execute real firing at targets. Other times we would train in the Aegean Sea, firing an AGM-12 Bullpup, an amazing missile ,which we guided it from the aircraft using a small joystick (Release at 12000 -13000 feet ) until it hit its target, usually the small islet Karavia located in the middle of the Aegean Sea.

We would fly almost every day, all over the country flying low below the radar. Our commanders would always applause flights below 500 feet, even if that was the officially height for the Combat Profile Missions. During the 1974 Greek Turkish Crisis, in July, we were in readiness role inside our aircrafts. It was a five minute readiness, from the dusk until dawn of the day for 50 days. As pilots we would spent almost all that time inside the cockpit. One day we were briefed by our commander, that we had orders from the high HAF command, all pilots to execute a low level flight at 100 feet. We were already doing this and that order seemed very funny to us. Greek high command wanted to protect us by flying very low. Thankfully we had mastered this quite some time before.

I believe that during Cold War the balance of nuclear powers acted stabilizing the world’s international politics.It was not possible back then to have ISIS type phenomena. We had our nuclear toys, and guarded them as our eyes. The NATO nuclear assigned strike commander pilots from each country, would meet once per year in Germany, where we would design the nuclear planning of each.

We would go,we would return. Some of my co pilots were pissed off when we were going together cause it was boring and I did not playing Backgammon game to spent our time.
Generally we would worry a lot about nuclear war: We knew very well that nothing would happen,cause if something happened there would be no after. It was as simple as that.

Despite this, serving in an air force you have to be prepared emotionally for anything. I will never forget the doctor of our squadron carrying a black bag in his hand, and collecting the human remains of my copilots that died in accidents. Serving in air force is a job different than any other. For pilots this situation is something that must get used to. Living a life to the edge,is a prequisitive for any pilot.

If you are assigned to an intercept squadron, you can fly relatively calm for 45 minutes and for 5 minutes you must perform at 100% of your capabilities. If you are assigned to a strike squadron, you could, if you liked to, be at 100% of your performance for an hour by flying low above, the waves of the sea or the peaks of the mountains. But F-104G was offering also another type of excitement: The test flight of the aircraft, or the Functional Check Flight as it was told. This was the best pleasure a pilot could get, wearing his clothes.

I always had perfect relations with the maintenance technicians in every squadron I was assigned to;I had arranged with them ,when ever was a test flight,to be the first pilot to notify. I had modified a bit the test flight procedure, by carrying with me an audio Walkman Recorder (brought to me by a pilot friend who acquired it when he was trained in USA in F4s). With that I was reading the instrument indications loudly to record them there, instead of writing them down on my knee located, notepad. I achieved this by modifying the audio recorder, connecting it with helmet’s microphone. Doing this saved me a lot of time. Also I had convinced the maintenance stuff in activating a special test channel, so I could communicate with them directly during the 15-17 minute duration test flight. The typical test flight of the f104 included a zoom up after reaching mach 2, usually reaching 72000-73000 feet, especially with the TF104 which was 1000 lbs lighter (cause it did not had M61 gun). At one flight with the TF104, I was chatting with my copilot and trainee.I did not liked to fly as trainer, I always preferred to solo fly cause I was more concentrated.

Anyway,after completing the in flight flaps and gear tests,we had to perform the speed test.  Full afterburner and you time out the speed increase.It is rather slowly between 1,M and 1,4M but after that, speed increases quickly. So I execute the afterburner but nothing happens. I had forgotten to raise the flaps from take off to up, the chatting distracted me, I just forgotten it. I did not cancell the flight test, although aircraft had consumed much more fuel,we reached mach 2, we did the zoom up at 72000 feet. My copilot saw the curve of the earth, the dark blue of the sky and then we lowered our flight height to 50000 feet, towards or landing base. The fuel was almost consumed, cause the BS I did with the flaps. I tend to stay calm, also I can calculate the remaining flight based on fuel left, fairly good. I calculated that if we return to base flying at 50000 feet, with engine at idle, we would reach it. And so we did, but we were at the final stage of landing at relatively high height. My copilot asked me to make a go around, but with just 400lbs fuel left, I would not do such a thing. We landed just fine.

At the end of 1979 I was in Athens for a weekend. At saturday 8,00 o clock in the morning the phone rang. My first commander in F104s calls me from his office, he is now responsible for future assigns of the HAF pilots. He offers me an assign in an C130 squadron, that will be available in some months. I had to reply immediately and I answered yes.

A simple yes changed my course as a pilot from then. So I was assigned to Elefsis base ,but still not there.

At one day I was assigned to perform a test flight to one F104,after its check up and complete overhaul and maintenenance. That included a new paint as well. I went to the control room to spoke to the technicians, what they want me to test and check, except the FCF check list items and the ordinary procedure. We walked in front of the hangar, where a new painted F104 without its tip tanks, with its tiny wings was waiting for me. It was ready for its Mach 2 flight. After its test flight its paint would lose some of its bright ,cause it would go fast as 2 mach speed. The technicians were always a little bit suspicious with me and were indirectly accusing me about its colour degradation. My belief was that test aircraft had to perform its test flight with out paint, but this was not included in the maintenance manuals and procedures.

I took off ,everything ordinary and typical;I turned left towards Zakynthos island and gaining height.Turned right to reach the flight test area and did flaps and gear checks. Reached 32000-35000 feet, timed the acceleration from M1,1 -M 1,4 to 2 Mach speed or reaching temperature 121 degrees celsius.Which comes first ,I cannot remember exactly, after 40 years. Aircraft reached Mach 2, even more, maybe 2,02 or 2,03 Mach, at that point I turned gently to 20-25 degrees angles up, with afterburner in max. The rate of ascend was calculated as the height indicator in cockpit was rolling a full circle (roughly 1000 feet) per second. At 45000 feet aircraft lost cockpit pressure, but still I did not had any consequences yet so I continued.

At 65000 feet I noticed an increase in exhaust temperature ,reaching 700 C.I deactivated the afterburner,passing 70000 feet. At 75000 feet still going faster than sound ,but cause I did not wear pressure uniform, I start to suffer the effects of high atmosphere. Maybe it is time to start descending.As I am thinking this, already reached 78000 feet. I look around me,black, very dark blue, the curve of the earth is more visible than any other time, I am completely alone and 23 Kms away from any life form.

If my plane had the J79 of F4, which was producing 3100lbs more thrust and I was wearing a pressure uniform (as once the germans did while they were trained in Greenland), I am fairly certain could reach 90000 feet.

Return for landing after 15-17 minutes, and landed. All ok, no problem, I signed the papers and started talking to the technicians about the flight.

First thing I noticed was the angry face of one of the technicians. He calls me and shows me the front of the fuselage. The paint was gone,more than any other time. Ok I say to him laughing I reached 3 mach and 80000 feet. But sadly they did not liked my sense of humor and started checking the aircraft. One slim technician made his way into the air intake of the plane and announced that a part of it inside had defected. An even more perverted mechanic, compared that specific part of the plane I flew,with one that had crashed outside the airport some time before. They were showing exactly the same defects. The whole post test flight procedure is like going to the doctor; He will definitely find something wrong no matter what.

My plane became a sightview. All wanted to see it ,even from neighboring squadrons. Technicians checked it thoroughly ,reassempled it ,it had nothing wrong ,but they never gave it to me to flight test it again. So no more humor and joking for me after test flights.

This was my story and experiences about the F-104G StarFighter ,a unique plane ,that many hated it,many were jealous of it,but it never past unnoticed.

I wish people that have not see it,to watch it in an air show, flying and hear its unique engine sound.

And to feel how we felt, the pilots who flew it and the technicians that maintained it (specially when they had to repaint one).

Dimitris Tsannes, retired F104G pilot
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Doukas Gaitatzis

Doukas Gaitatzis

Παρατηρητής και ιστογράφος θεμάτων αμυντικής τεχνολογίας. Δεσμευμένος με τις Ελληνικές Ένοπλες Δυνάμεις και παθιασμένος με οτιδήποτε στρατιωτικό.

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