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End of the Corsairs

It's the end of an era for the A-7 Corsair II of the Hellenic Air Force (HAF): October 17th was the official retirement day of the old warrior (though some aircrafts flew till the end of the month).
Home of the last active A-7 squadron in the world, Araxos Air Base hosted a special media and spotter day along with the retirement ceremony.

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LTV A-7 Corsair II

The aircraft

In the early 60s the US Navy began searching for a replacement aircraft for its A-4 Skyhawk fleet. The new airframe should be able to conduct air-to-ground attacks (while having self-defence air-to-air weapons), carry a maximum payload weight of 15,000lbs (6,803kg) over 600nm.

The Ling-Temco-Vought firm won over the competition (Grumman, Douglas, North American) with its YA-7A: a derivate of the well-known F-8 Crusader fighter soon named "Corsair II".

YA-7A
The YA-7A prototype (©US Navy)

Compared to the Crusader the fuselage was shorter and broader, the nose was rounded, the wing had a longer span and dropped the variable incidence device. The Pratt & Whitney TF-30-P-6 turbofan engine didn't feature an afterburner as the Corsair was essentially subsonic.

Following a smooth development the first YA-7A prototype took off on 25 September 1965. Two years later the first US Navy squadron was deemed operational on the A-7A.

Here is a list of the main variants:

  • A-7A: First production version. Armed with two Colt Mk12 cannons. 199 built.
  • A-7B: Updated version with TF-30-P-8 engine providing an additional 1,000lbf. 196 built.
  • TA-7C: Double-seater version converted from A-7B and A-7C single-seaters. 60 airframes.
  • A-7D: US Air Force variant, using the Allison TF-41-A-1 turbofan and a single M61A1 Vulcan 20mm rotary cannon. 459 built.
  • A-7E: US Navy version of the A-7D. 529 built.

Aside from the USAF and USN, the A-7 Corsair was sold to the Hellenic Air Force, the Portuguese Air Force and the Royal Thai Navy Air Arm. A total of 1,569 aircrafts were built between 1965 and 1984.

In Operation

Vietnam war

The A-7 started its first combat missions in the skies of Vietnam operated by both US Air Force and US Navy. Pilots were impressed by its stability and the low fuel consumption, despite the lack of power of the first versions' engines. The USN A-7s distinguished themselves during the attack of the Thanh Hoa bridge when 4 aircrafts dropped guided and unguided 2000lb bombs against the center piling, broking the span in half after nearly seven years of attacks.

96 USN A-7s were lost while only 6 USAF A-7 were shot down. It dropped more bombs per sortie with greater accuracy than any other U.S. attack aircraft.

Grenada and Lebanon

In October 1983 US Navy A-7E squadrons provided close air support (CAS) during the invasion of Grenada, launching from the USS Independence (CV-62). On the same year A-7Es also performed CAS missions over Lebanon.

Libya

In March and April 1986 A-7E launched from USS Saratoga (CV-60) and USS America (CV-66) aircraft carriers to performed Suppresion / Destruction of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD/DEAD) missions. They fired both AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-88 HARM antiradiation missiles against Libyan SAM sites.

Iraq

The US Navy deployed in August 1990 the last two A-7 squadrons (VA-46 "Clansmen" and VA-72 "Hawks") aboard the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) for Operation Desert Shield. During Operation Desert Storm A-7E performed day and night strikes in Iraq using precision guided weapons and HARM antiradiation missiles. They also acted as air tankers for the other strike packages.

The Corsairs in the HAF

Part one: here comes the "H"

A first order of 60 single-seaters A-7H ("H" for Hellenic) and 5 two-seaters TA-7H was made on June, 20th 1974. These aircrafts were built specifically for the needs of the HAF: while they kept the engine and avionics of the US Navy's A-7E version, they lacked the capabilities to perform air-refuelling and carrier operations (though the arresting hook wasn't removed: it was used for emergency landings in case of a failure of the conventional braking system). Deliveries started in 1975 till 1980 and three bomber squadrons were created or reactivated: the 340, 345 and 347sqns.

A-7H
A HAF pilot stands before his A-7H and an impressive weapons display (©Hellenic Air Force).

The arrival of the T/A-7s in the HAF was a noteworthy event as the aircraft brought many new and advanced capabilities. It was equipped with a Heads Up Display or HUD (a first in the force), a better inertial navigation system and an advanced radar with ground mapping, terrain following and terrain avoiding features. It also had a tremendous payload capacity: 15,000lb (6,803.9kg) of various standard and guided weapons for an empty weight of 19,127 lb (8,676 kg) !

The T/A-7H completed 320,000 flight hours before being phased out in the 2000s.

Part two: reinforcements arrive

In the early 1990s the HAF sought for another batch of Corsairs to compensate for the retirement of its F-104 Starfighters and the loss of some A-7H. In 1993 a contract was signed with the US DoD for an additionnal lot of 50 single-seat A-7E and 18 double-seat TA-7C. These aircrafts belonged previously to the US Navy and were stored in the AMARC near Tucson, Arizona.

The primary task for the greek personnel sent to the United States was to bring these aircrafts back to an airworthy status and then to send them to Greece (either by flying them or by shipping them in crates).

Although the airframes weren't new as the "H" versions they brought the air-refuelling capacity and FLIR pods thus allowing long range and night missions capabilities.

A TA-7C launch into the skies of Araxos (October 2014).

The 340 and 347sqns transitionned to the F-16C Fighting Falcon and became fighter/bomber squadrons. The 345sqn was disbanded while the 335 and 336sqns were reactivated and operated both older T/A-7H and "newer" T/A-7C/E. The 335sqn specialized in night attack missions whereas the 336sqn will expertize in air-refuelling operations. Those two squadrons will complete 120,000 flight hours until the retirement of the aircraft.

The retirement ceremony

The "End of an era" ceremony minutes before the VIP arrival.

With a sad grey overcast above the base, a prayer to the fallen was followed by the firing of a volley salute by the honor guard and a flypast of two A-7s. In 39 years of service, 13 pilots were killed in action while piloting A-7s.

Flypast of two A-7 Corsair to honor the fallen.
Dimitris Avramopoulos (Minister for National Defence of Greece), Air Marshal Evangellos Tournas (Chief of Air Force General Staff) and Major Apostolos Papadopoulos (336 Squadron Commander) were present and gave speeches to the attending crowd.

On the occasion of the retirement ceremony the 336 bomber squadron painted a single-seat A-7E in a stunning silver and grey livery.

Thanks to the pilots and mechanics the special scheme A-7E was moved from whithin the hangar (where it standed for the ceremony) to a much better spot for photographers.

Now the 336sqn will transition to the F-16C Block 52+ and become a fighter/bomber squadron. No doubt the nostalgia from operating these aircrafts will stay for some time and become a fond memory for the people of the squadron.

"We left greek skies to meet other gods" as the commemorative patch says. So long, old warrior!

Jerome Mathieu