Ian Harding and Neil Dunridge report from Andreas Papandreou Air Base on the Kypriaki Stratiotiki Aeroporia
At 08:00 hours engineers from 450 Mira Elikopteron Aeroskafon (Helicopter Squadron) are conducting pre-flight checks on three Mil Mi-35Ps and two Aérospatiale SA-342L1 Gazelles. Conducting a combination of offensive, defensive and special operations within the Cyprus Flight Information Region, the squadron maintains a constant state of readiness in a politically sensitive region.
The Kypriaki Diikissi Aeroporias (Cyprus Air Force Command) was established in 1987 shortly before the arrival of six, sandy coloured SA-342L1 Gazelle anti-tank helicopters subsequently delivered in January 1988. Two Pilatus PC-9s followed one year later followed by a single BN-2B Islander, but these types are now withdrawn from service. Established in 1995, 55 Combat Group, a subordinate unit to the Cyprus Air Force Command, currently comprises two helicopter squadrons operating from Andreas Papandreou Air Base, a military facility located on the north side of Paphos International Airport. Each squadron comprises two platoons, each platoon operates a single type.
450 Helicopter Squadron
Established on October 15, 2001 to operate Mil Mi-35Ps (delivered in July 2001), the significance of the arrival of the Russian gunships is reflected in the squadron’s emblem, which alongside a black panther, contains 12 stars, one for each Mi-35P acquired. One aircraft was lost in July 2006.
Training of the initial aircrew cadre was conducted in Russia by the Russian Army, but the squadron now uses its four remaining SA-342L1 Gazelles to do so. The strong association Cyprus shares with Greece is reflected in the training as Lieutenant Colonel Savva Kypros; Commanding Officer of 450 Helicopter Squadron and a Mi-35P instructor pilot explained: “Our pilots commence initial flight training at Tatoi Air Base [Dekhelia, near Athens] on the Cessna T-41D and now the Tecnam P-2002JF, before commencing fast jet training at Kalamata Air Base [Kalamata, Peloponessus] on the Textron T-6 Texan and finally the Rockwell T-2E Buckeye. We are like no other helicopter squadron in Europe, because we provide our pilots with fast jet experience, which I believe prepares them better. When you see the Mi-35P for the first time, you ask yourself, how will this heavy flying-tank get airborne? Once it leaves the ground, you realise how powerful and responsive the helicopter is.
“Initial helicopter pilot training is completed on the Gazelle which takes approximately 50 flight hours. Those pilots selected for the Mi-35P complete basic and operational flight training. They start as the co-pilot [pilot operator] in the front seat before moving to the back seat as the commander [pilot in command] after approximately 300 flight hours if successful; a standard crew also includes a flight engineer.”
Pilots confirmed the Mi-35P is a reliable but demanding helicopter to fly, and reinforced the importance of crew resource management due to the cockpit ergonomics. Daily training flights reinforce this ethos. The squadron forward deploys, regularly participates in exercises and undertakes live firing at nearby ranges several times a year to stay current as Lieutenant Colonel Kypros explained: “During missions, the pilot operator works as a navigator and communicates with both Army and Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers using secure communications, whilst the pilot in command flies the helicopter. As commander, the pilot plans and takes the operational decisions including the position of the helicopter formation which often includes other helicopter types like the Gazelle if we conduct dissimilar formations. The big advantage of the Gazelle is its size; it is very difficult to spot and when we fly with them on low-level missions, we can lose sight of them if we don’t keep them in our view.”
Pilots consider the Gazelle a reliable and agile aircraft, perfectly suited to Cyprus’ rugged terrain, given its ability to fly low and disappear from sight thanks to its camouflage. With its standard two-man crew, Cypriot Gazelles are capable of carrying four HOT-2 or HOT-3 missiles (High subsonic, Optical, remote-guided, Tube-launched second-generation anti-tank missile) which have a range of approximately 2 nautical miles (4km). Targeting is completed by the pilot in the left-hand seat using a targeting sight.
One day per week is dedicated to night flying using night vision goggles. Given the local terrain, intense seasonal heat and humidity, this requires specialist training. Safety is paramount and flight operations stop if a specific combination of humidity and temperature is achieved.
460 Search and Rescue Squadron
Established on May 25, 2010 when the Cypriot government took exclusive responsibility for national search and rescue missions, 460 Search and Rescue Squadron is one of the nation’s newest squadrons. It currently operates three AgustaWestland AW139s delivered between December 2010 and July 2011, and two Bell 206L3 Long Ranger helicopters which were transferred from 449 Helicopter Squadron in 2010. The two Bell 206L3s are fitted with a VIP cabin configuration and fulfil a range of duties which include liaison and most importantly crew training in a similar fashion to the Gazelle. Those aircrew that transition to the AW139 require approximately 150 flight training hours in the Bell 206.
The AW139s primary role is maritime search and rescue, which along with the AW139s operated by the Cyprus Police based at Larnaca International Airport, is coordinated by the Cyprus Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC); an independent agency of the Ministry of Defence based in Larnaca. JRCC determines which agency is best placed to undertake specific SAR tasks.
The squadron has a diverse range of secondary tasks which include parachute dropping, medical evacuation, aerial photography, firefighting, personnel transport and tactical operations. After becoming Commanding Officer on August 30, 2019, Major Panoyiotis Athinodorou made his first command decision which was to redesign the colour scheme of AW139 serial number 702, which now carries distinctive dayglo markings, SQN 460 and Cyprus Air Force titles.
Major Panoyiotis Athinodorou said: “We completed our day-night SAR crew training within one year. A flight crew comprises two pilots, one hoist aircrewman and one rescue swimmer. Each year our pilots return to Sesto Calende in Italy for continuation training which comprises a two-day course and three days of simulator work.
“On 24-hour duty, we aim to be airborne within 30 minutes for SAR, and 45 minutes for firefighting. For the latter we have to connect the bambi-basket and complete other weight checks, but we are normally airborne within 15 minutes. Our medevac target is 45 minutes as we have to determine which hospital [Nicosia or Paphos] will receive us based on the injury. If necessary, we can attach a triple stretcher weighing approximately 150kg (330lb) to transport patients. When off-base, aircrew are on a three-hour call notice. Aside from normal SAR tasking, regular calls involve rescuing refugees. During one incident approximately 27 nautical miles (50km) offshore, we rescued 25 people in two hours in very rough sea conditions. I flew as the pilot with another aircraft from the Police. Winching was very difficult on this occasion as the boat’s height varied in the swell making it difficult to gain a reference point, plus some people reacted very badly with one refugee jumping into the water. We flew them to Larnaca Airport where the Justice Department had organised ambulances for hospital transfer.”
The squadron’s firefighting duties commenced in 2014 following specific Police training. Major Athinodorou confirmed the intense Cyprus firefighting season extends from May 1 to November 15, with a national firefighting plan called Ikaros that coordinates the various assets involved. These include Police and Forestry Department helicopters. Russian Kamov Ka-32s from PANH Helicopters leased by the Republic of Cyprus government and stationed at Paphos International Airport, plus Royal Air Force Griffin HT1s from 84 Squadron based at Royal Air Force Akrotiri.
In the near future, Major Athinodorou hopes to have operating procedures in place to enable his aircrews to exercise with the 84 Squadron. He said: “For a firefighting mission we fly with a three-man crew comprising a pilot, co-pilot and hoist operator. The bambi basket carried weighs 2,650lb [1,200kg] but we generally don’t fill it with water because of the distance we have to travel to the fire, the reservoir height we collect from, and the hot and high conditions we face fighting the fire. Our crews are also restricted to two firefighting missions per day, so I have to switch crews.”
The squadron has completed a number of exercises in Cyprus with other nations keen to share knowledge and has also participated in two overseas exercises; Aetos 2016, a SAR exercise held within the Greek FIR east of Rhodes and Inihios 2019 at Andravida Air Base, home of the Hellenic Air Force Air Tactics Centre. This was the first time the squadron had participated in such a large-scale international exercise during which it completed both SAR and combat search and rescue missions. During the week long flying phase the squadron participated in the complex briefing process and completed six missions; the first time it had flown as part of a large Composite Air Operation comprising over 20 fighter aircraft and other helicopters. In one mission 460 Helicopter Squadron worked with JTACs calling in strikes, and another as a CSAR asset collecting a pilot who had completed a simulated ejection.
Each squadron has its own engineers who are responsible for completing flight line (level one) and base (level two) maintenance for their respective aircraft in accordance with manufacturer’s technical documentation. All depot level maintenance takes place overseas; St Petersburg and Rostov in Russia for Mi-35Ps and Belgium where one AW139 is currently undergoing heavy maintenance and specific structural inspection.
During AIR International’s visit to Andreas Papandreou Air Base, 450 Helicopter Squadron had seven Mi-35Ps and three Gazelles operational, with its remaining aircraft in scheduled maintenance. The squadron’s objective is to retain a 100% operational capability across the fleet.
Second Lieutenant Giorgos Karavias said: “Mi-35P base maintenance is completed after approximately 200 flight hours and takes approximately 20-man days. Unlike the Gazelle, the Mi-35P requires a lot of maintenance hours because of the number of lubrication points. Its Klimov TV3170 engine is very reliable, but salt corrosion is an issue due to our location. We therefore complete an engine and compressor wash every three hours. Most issues, are picked up during the pre-flight checks which is an engineering responsibility. In the case of the Mi-35P, these are completed approximately 90 minutes before the aircraft is required for a mission; less for the Gazelle.”
Major Marios Constantinou, Chief Engineer with 460 Helicopter Squadron, confirmed the unit hopes to have all three AW139s available by the end of the year. However, the AW139s are also experiencing corrosion issues. He said: “The main issue with the AW139 is corrosion control effecting both the airframe and some dynamic components. We protect the helicopter daily, which is very difficult to accomplish because we fly so low over salt water. We wash the engines every day as per the maintenance manual using either chemicals or just water, and are trained to rectify minor structural issues. However, we sent one aircraft to Belgium after 1,200 flight hours because we needed structural support, plus an independent check is helpful. Despite this specific issue, our AW139 serviceability record has been good over nine years of operation. The Bell 206 is a very nice helicopter, old but very reliable, easy to maintain and excellent for training.”
The Cyprus Air Force plans to further upgrade its future capability, though no plan has been finalised. Local media reports have suggested the Air Force may upgrade its attack helicopter capability. On October 8, local media also confirmed that the Cyprus government has acquired four Israel Aeronautics Aerostar Tactical unmanned aerial systems at a cost of €12 million. The unmanned air vehicles will be used to monitor the Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone.
450 Helicopter Squadron
1st Platoon SA-342L1
2nd Platoon Mi-35P
460 Search and Rescue Squadron
1st Platoon AW139
2nd Platoon Bell 206L3