NATO Tiger Meet 2022 - Araxos AB / Greece
Update: 2022/05/28 by Shawn Clish / CHK6
For as long as I have known about the NATO Tiger Association (NTA), I have been interested in their annual Tiger Meet. Full of pageantry and tradition, this exercise has been bringing tiger themed aviation units together from all over Europe since the first meeting between American and British squadrons in 1960. The first official meeting of the NTA occurred the following year at RAF Woodbridge in Great Britain and was expanded to include a French squadron as well. After following these events online for many years, I was finally able to attend in person at BAN Landivisiau, France in 2017. I was delighted to be among all of these European units, operating aircraft like the Eurofighter TYPHOON and Dassault RAFALE which are rare visitors to North America. There were plenty of colourful paint schemes and tiger paraphernalia everywhere, creating a wonderful atmosphere among the participants and enthusiasts. I assumed I would become a regular attendee, but a variety of reasons caused me to miss the following four events in Poland, France, Portugal and Belgium. Determined to attend once again this year, I was very excited to receive my confirmation email from the organizing committee.
The 2022 NATO Tiger Meet (NTM) was held at Araxos Air Base (LGRX) in western Greece from May 9 to May 20. The exercise was hosted by 335 “Tiger” Squadron, which is part of the 116 Combat Wing in the Hellenic Air Force (HAF). This was the squadron’s first time hosting the event since their inclusion in the NTA in 1972. The exercise features two missions each day for crews to train in multiple disciplines of aerial warfare such as Air Interdiction, Dynamic Targeting and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense. The general public was provided with two opportunities to enter the base in the form of a spottersday on Friday May 13 and an air show on Sunday May 15. These were the only approved methods to get photos of the participating aircraft as photography outside a military installation in Greece is illegal.
There were aircraft from nine NTA units at Araxos AB for the exercise. The host 335 Mira operate Lockheed Martin F-16C/D FIGHTING FALCONS and applied special tail decals to one of their jets to celebrate this meet. 31 Squadron from the Belgian Air Force was also participating with Fighting Falcons, but theirs are older F-16AM/BM models. They still have their impressive “X-Tiger” paint scheme that was created for the tiger meet they hosted in September 2021. There were two units flying older variants of the Boeing E/F-18 HORNET. Staffel 11 from Switzerland fly F/A-18C and D models while the Spaniards operate the EF-18M and BM. The Swiss had some brightly coloured fuel tanks while ALA 15 from Spain had a Hornet with beautifully painted tails and striped fuel tanks. The only rotary-wing example this year was the Czech Air Force Mil Mi-24V HIND from 221 Squadron. It was a pleasure to finally see their incredible “Alien Tiger”, a stunning livery that has interested me for quite some time. The Italians brought five Eurofighter TYPHOON from 12 Gruppo, one of which was adorned with a striking white tiger referred to as “Tigrata”. This unit is rumoured to be hosting the 2023 edition of the NTM at Gioia Del Colle AB in southern Italy. Finally, there were three units flying three special versions of the AMD RAFALE from the French Armed Forces. Flotille 11F from the Aeronautique Navale (French Navy) fly the Rafale M and had a fun scheme that featured their logo in red on one side and blue on the other. Escadron de Chasse et d’Experimentation 1/30 from the Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace (French Air Force) had a “Steel Tiger” livery applied to one of their RAFALE B jets. And, saving the best for last, the only participant with special markings that covered an entire airplane was a RAFALE C from EC 3/30 “Lorraine”. Their black, grey and red “Rogue Spartan” was rightfully awarded the Best Tiger Aircraft and helped the squadron win the coveted Silver Tiger Trophy
Due to a multitude of complications, including the invasion of the Ukraine, there were many members of the NTA that were unable to attend as full participants this year. Missions from Araxos were supported by the tigers from Flying Squadron 1 in the Boeing E-3A SENTRY, but they operated from NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany. There was also at least one Grumman E-2C HAWKEYE based at Araxos and it departed on the morning of Friday May 13, ahead of the first wave of aircraft. The Portuguese 301 Jaguares and TLG74 from Germany were relegated to visitor status this year but flew in for the static display on Sunday May 15. To fill in for missing units, a variety of HAF squadrons were used during the exercise. These included the locally based 336 “Olympus” F-16 Squadron and the 338 “Ares” Squadron which operates the McDonnell Douglas F-4E PHANTOM II from nearby Anadravida AB.
On the morning of Friday May 13, aviation enthusiasts were welcomed on base for a spottersday. The morning began with registration at 0730 which was the usual organized chaos that I now expect at European events. This was followed by a shuttle bus ride on to the base to the location that would be used for both the spottersday and air show. Unfortunately, we were positioned on the west side of Runway 18R-36L and north of the taxiway to the civilian airport terminal which meant facing into the sun until mid-afternoon with no proximity to taxiing or parked aircraft. Movements started shortly after the base opened, as four Greek F-16s from different squadrons departed for a short flight. There was also a French Navy Grumman E-2C HAWKEYE from Flottile 4F with special tiger markings that departed Runway 36L but was not seen during the remainder of my time on base. There were also rehearsals by a couple of the performers scheduled to appear in the Sunday show. First up was the Greek F-16C demonstration team “ZEUS”, the god of the sky in Greek Mythology. This display represents the professionalism and skill of all Hellenic Air Force pilots which was noticeable as both members of the military and civilians looked skyward with pride. “ZEUS” was followed by the colourful “X-Tiger” from the Belgian Air Force F-16 Solo Display Team. The exciting Belgian program is flown by Captain Steven “Vrieske” De Vries, the most experienced F-16 pilot in Belgium and the first pilot outside of the United States to attain 5000 flying hours in the F-16. Both pilots displayed expert skill throwing their jets around the sky, enhanced by the use of “Smokewinders” that were attached to each wingtip.
The morning wave commenced around 1030 and featured multiple aircraft from each nation including most of those with colourful liveries. Unfortunately, due the the harsh sun conditions, many of the images of departing aircraft were back-lit shadowy outlines instead of brightly attired tiger colours. The mission lasted about an hour and a half and recoveries started around noon in marginally improved lighting conditions. The highlight for me was the low pass down the runway by the Czech Mi-24V “Alien Tiger”. I have always been impressed by these large attack helicopters that also have the capability to carry eight troops, but I have rarely had the opportunity to see them fly. The morning wave was capped off with a full display by the special “Greek Spitfire”, a Supermarine SPITFIRE Mk.IXc. The performance was especially memorable as the first three passes were flown with the landing gear partially extended. Whether the pilot noticed this or was alerted by air traffic control, the gear was fully retracted for the remainder of the display then safely locked in the down position for landing.
Just ahead of the afternoon launch, a pair of German EF-2000 arrived (the Germans do not give their EF-2000 any name). While it made sense that the squadron would bring two-seat jets to allow extra crew members to travel to Greece, it was certainly disappointing not to see the squadron’s beautiful blue “Bavarian Tiger” in the overhead break. With the continuously improving sun angle, the second wave started launching at 1400 and was kicked off by the colour-flight. 10 jets departed that included all seven tiger themed fighters and a pair of two-seat camera ships. It was great to see the host 335 jet depart with newly applied tail decals that celebrated NTM22 in Greece. The group circled the area before departing for Athens to photograph the colourful formation flying past the famous Acropolis and surrounding ruins. It was initially speculated that these might be the only aircraft to launch during a condensed afternoon of flying but soon a full mission of jets started up and took off with air-to-air ordinance, signalling a fun afternoon of air combat maneuvering. More rehearsal performances were conducted by a Spanish Air Force EF-18BM HORNET and a pair of French Navy RAFALE Ms. In almost 40 years of visiting air shows I have seen a lot of Hornet demonstrations, but the routine executed by Jose and Jaime of ALA 15 was probably the most exciting and energetic Hornet display I have ever witnessed. Their dynamic vertical and horizontal maneuvers were all executed with precision and their energy management squeezed plenty of moisture out of the air, resulting in loads of vapouring pouring off the leading edges of the jet. I also really enjoyed Rafales, a jet that I have really taken a strong liking to since first seeing them at the Tiger Meet in 2017. The duo flew multiple passes in formation but also split up to perform crossing maneuvers.
After thousands of images taken from the back seat of the Greek VIPER and French RAFALE camera-ships, the colour formation returned. They were shortly followed by the rest of the jets from the second wave, who landed and rolled past the 400+ photographers in much better lighting conditions than they had earlier. The second wave finished with a special surprise as it featured two extra jets that hadn’t departed from Araxos and hour and a half earlier.
It’s amazing that no matter where you are in the world, there is one aircraft type that is always a favourite among aviation enthusiasts. When it was initially listed that the F-4E PHANTOM II would take part in the exercise to make up for some of the member squadrons that were unable to attend, there was an increased level of excitement. This was heightened ahead of the spottersday when a local publication listed the F-4 as a static participant during the Sunday show. Finally, it was confirmed by a friendly Greek engine mechanic who was also part of the security team that a pair of Phantoms would indeed be recovering at the end of the mission. The jets, trailing their unmistakable black smoke, arrived as part of a six-ship formation that also included four French Air Force Rafales. Both Phantoms took the option and went around, using full military power on their J-79 engines and passing low and fast above the runway, the only jets to do so that day. Once on the ground, they popped their signature brake parachutes and rolled past as hundreds of cameras buffered as quickly as they could. The spottersday flying concluded with the Czech Hinds passing in front of photographers in much better light than earlier, followed by a rehearsal display.
Two days later, on Sunday May 15, many of the spotters from Friday returned and were joined by hundreds (thousands?) of locals for a static display and air show. The static display aircraft were parked in two rows along the civilian airport taxiway. The north side featured the Czech “Alien Tiger”, the colourful Spanish HORNET, both special French Air Force RAFALE and a PHANTOM II. Opposite them were a Portuguese F-16BM carrying beautiful Jaguar themed fuel tanks, Italian and German EF-2000, the colourful French Navy RAFALE M and the Greek VIPER with a freshly applied set of decals.
The flying display again started earlier than ideal and therefore featured harshly lit images of the Daedalus T-6 TEXAN II and the Czech HIND. A 20 minute break followed but unfortunately the light did not improve much for the Spanish HORNET or the Belgian “X-Tiger” F-16. A second 20 minute break provided an opportunity to purchase food, visit the distantly located facilities and purchase merchandise from the various squadron tents. The final group of acts started with the French Navy RAFALE and was followed by the “Greek Spitfire” and “ZEUS” demonstrations, with the finale being a special formation of the two Greek aircraft. The day proved quite challenging for photography as there were ropes and people around the static aircraft and the flying programme was primarily back-lit. Fortunately organizers allowed photographers to stay later than planned and removed the barriers from many of the static planes, providing wonderful opportunities for unobstructed images in perfect conditions.
It was a pleasure to attend the first NATO Tiger Meet to be held in Greece and I am very grateful to the Hellenic Air Force, Araxos Air Base, 116 Combat Wing and 335 Mira for opening their doors and organizing two enjoyable days. This was their first attempt at a large event and although there were some aspects that should have been better (food and facilities), I had a wonderful time on base and have a lot of great images and memories. The weather cooperated, there were plenty of colourful aircraft to enjoy and the lively atmosphere of the Tiger Meet was a pleasure to experience once again. And of course, there were Phantoms!
Tiger Tiger Tiger!
Shawn Clish / CHK6