The Mediterranean sea almost shimmers in response to the sun rays, but there is still no feeling of excitement at the sight of the clear water: blue is blue is blue and these helicopters made the long and monotonous journey from IAF bases to a Greek base just a few days ago. A few minutes later and the blue view changes again, the one seen from the window as well as the one mirrored on the cockpit screens.
We are making rounds, as if mimicking the rivers etched into the Mount Olympus. An isolated hut appears on the horizon and disappears time and again and the Unit 669 fighters along with their Greek counterparts are looking restless as they lean out the Blackhawk and stare downward.
Suddenly, we are landing and the rescue unit fighters leap off the helicopter. They disappear among the bushes and quickly return with a “wounded” man on one of the soldiers’ shoulders. They quickly hop back onto the plane and within a moment we’re already at an altitude of 7,000 feet.
Respect the Mountain
“In Israel we know every hill and every mountain and are less preoccupied with the elements of flying. We’re not preoccupied with navigational orientation, which is an important component of flying”, says Lieutenant Colonel Gadi, Commander of the “Rolling Sword” squadron and commander of the temporary squadron in Greece that includes Blackhawk and Apache-Longbow pilots. “Within two or three years, the average helicopter pilot has flown through the area so many times that he’s not surprised anymore. Here we have no idea. I don’t know the place and I need to study the territory extensively”.
But it wasn’t only for the element of surprise that the helicopters flew over to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s very difficult not to bow your head in respect when standing at the foot of the 2,900 meter Olympus Mountain. Major Gad: “Flying through high mountains is more complicated and requires more power. There are winds, powerful whirlwinds, and it’s difficult to maneuver the helicopter”.
In the adjacent line, the combat helicopter formation is also watching the home of Zeus. “The higher the helicopter climbs, the more difficult it is for it”, says Captain Or, Deputy Commander of the “Hornet” squadron. “That said, we were pleasantly surprised: The helicopter functioned a lot better than we expected and we must’ve been well prepared for the exercise and learned how to not to push ourselves into corners. Regardless, the helicopter makes it easier for you. It knows how to respond when it’s crunch time. It tells you how much power you need, what you need in order to fly, and what it limits are at that time”.
Similar and Different
A few days have passed since IAF pilots and pilots from the Greek Land army started training together, and the base hosting the participants is completely filled.
“There style of flight is different than ours. Their flight altitudes are significantly higher and their observation systems are different”, says Captain Yaki, a pilot in the “Hornet” Squadron. “We have an extremely advanced night vision system that allows us to see a clear picture, which requires of us to quickly adapt to their ability to locate targets and aim toward them”.
Captain Zois Dimitriadi, a Staff Officer in the Greek Army, adds: “Because our helicopters are A models, there’s a difference between the radars and our other systems and the Israeli helicopters. What we see on our screens is different than what can be seen on yours and because of the difference we can only transfer information by speaking on the signal operator”.
“Our operational area isn’t characterized by mountainous terrain”, explains Captain Zois Dimitriadi. “The operations that we practice are in sea or in tank combat. Tanks can’t climb mountains, so it interests us less”.
Brigadier General David Barki, Commander of Helicopter section in the IAF, also sees the importance and value of the collaborative practice. “It’s always beneficial to fly with whoever has the same missions and flies on similar platforms. A different point of view allows us to reevaluate our world view. The Greeks learn from different places, especially NATO and the experience that NATO has is from lessons learned by other Air Forces in areas like Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. For us, these are important lessons to be learned”.
The Greek way
Kneeling close to the ground, Unit 669 Search & Rescue combat teams are scattered in the backyard of the base. The crews are in the grove near by the Squadron’s building and are training together with their Greek counterparts – Unit 31.
The training in the grove is just the warm-up. Not much time passes until the real-deal arrives: rescue and evacuation sorties performed by integrated crews of Greeks and Israelis. The “ride” was mixed as well: one performed by an Israeli Uh-60 Blackhawk, the other by a Greek UH-1.
“Flying in a different aircraft is a little weird”, says First Sergeant Yinon, Commander of the 669 crew, “there are technical differences between the helicopters: the seating arrangements and the way the equipment is organized. The flying is different mostly because of the communication with the pilots. We’re used to understanding where we’re going and knowing what’s going to happen. On the Greek helicopters only the in-flight mechanics hear the signal operator and we have no idea what’s going on”.
“Something from Everyone”
The helicopters might’ve been from both sides, but when it comes to combat doctrine there was only one option: The Israeli one. Unit 31 was formed 13 years ago, almost a generation after the formation of Unit 669 and as they say: experience cannot be replaced.
“This is our second exercise with Unit 669″, says Commander of Unit 31. “In the last exercise, we saw that 669 are very experienced and we decided to train with them again. Our activity mainly involves training sessions. We have peace and few real events, so we watch and learn from units like 669 that have combat experience, just as we learn from the Americans and the rest of the NATO countries. We need to take the best from each”.
And indeed, there is no doubt that unit 669 received the title “combat” for a reason. The unit participated in the First and Second Lebanon Wars and in many operations such as “Cast Lead” and even in “Operation Solomon” in the efforts to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“These are the Same Principles”
The last day of the exercise arrives. If at first the Israeli pilots could say that they’re still fatigued from the long flight from Israel, or that they haven’t gotten to know the terrain yet, all excuses are now invalid. They’ve already flown in unknown area, in high altitudes and in sunlight that persists until nine in the evening. Now they’re ready for the flagship sortie of the session.
Crews of UH-60 Blackhawks, Apaches, and Apache Longbows left to locate an abandoning pilot, and the leader holds a detailed list as required by NATO: the location of the pilot, confirmation code, threats in the area, and reason for abandonment.
Captain Gad: “It’s very similar to the way we do it. These are the same principles”.
But it seems that no matter what, in some areas the differences are purposeful. Aerial crews from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea are not going to develop identical combat doctrines anytime soon. Still, the breeze reaching us from the east brings a positive gust of spirit.
“There’s a nice openness amongst the pilots. It’s clear that the Greeks willingly want to join efforts and learn lessons”, says Brigadier General Yoav. “I think that we can take a few steps forward, like making our practices more complex”.