I spent three months in the U.S. Air Force’s jet fighter program in 1971 after finishing Officer Training School, a young Second Lieutenant with a background in journalism expecting the next stop would be the skies over Vietnam, and combat.
It made my family wince, my father and uncles veterans of World War II in Germany and the Pacific and The Philippines, because they knew what war was really like, if not in the skies of dog fights.
That’s as far as I went in the year-long training at McLaughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, on the Mexican border, that took officers from classrooms to Piper Cub-type light aircraft and subsonic aircraft to supersonic jets, joining an elite group.
On one of the first days of training we were taken to look into the cockpit of a Northrop T-38 supersonic jet was still being used as long as some 60 years after being introduced, including by the U.S. Navy, whose pilots were made famous by the movie Top Gun.
It was a daunting experience to see all the dials and gauges and the stick used to control and maneuver the aircraft, and be told that if we made it to the end of training that we would be taking it solo to California and back.
After the difficult classroom work of learning about the principles of flight and the other math-heavy procedures that were even more difficult for those not attuned to that kind of thinking, I got a note to see the base doctor.
He sent me to another doctor in San Antonio, some 169 miles east – passing through the town of Uvalde now infamous for a school massacre – and then was informed I was out of jet fighter school because my medical records showed I’d had a migraine headache before coming into the service.
I was saved from Vietnam and combat by one of those little twists of fate that life takes you on – what happens to you could hinge on where you went to school, whom you sat next to or met – and was glad for that.
But the admiration for the men – because that’s who were being trained then – never subsided, and in 1988 while covering the Presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire on a cold February night it sent me to my mother’s home town of Milford – glad that I could see her.
And thrilled to also meet the greatest of all the pilots, Chuck Yeager, who had been denied becoming an astronaut because he didn’t have a college degree but could fly rings around the best in the world, even though he thought going up in a spaceship wasn’t really flying, just strapped to a seat.
He was one of the few people in the world I admired, Yeager having climbed into a Bell X-1 rocket plane and became the first human being to break the sound barrier in level flight. And he did it with two broken ribs.
Greece has a legion of fighter pilots just like him – including the only female, Acheillia Georgakila, the second woman to ever fly a Greek Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter jet, who wowed observers at military exercises, including Israeli pilots.
Some of her peers were at a Hellenic Air Force exhibit at the Syntagma Square metro station recently, drawing crowds who could talk to pilots and try on equipment and live their life vicariously for a moment.
I met two of the pilots who’d just finished training, one who was going to be in an American-made F-16 and the other in a French-made Mirage that is being phased out as the government made a deal to buy France’s Rafale fighters.
They are the first, and best, line of defense Greece has against Turkey. And Greek pilots regularly rank among the best in NATO, having so much practice in mock dogfights against Turkey’s pilots, whose ranks were depleted in a purge by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a failed 2016 coup against him.
Squadron Leader Anastasios Andronikakis was named NATO’s Best Pilot in 2021, the one who whom NATO fighters would like to have by their side in a conflict, so you can sleep easy knowing he’s in the air for Greece, with his colleagues, Erdogan openly saying he’s contemplating an invasion.
“Human factors plays a role especially in the rather congested Aegean air space (in case of a conflict), whereby the so-called ‘dog fights’ or close range air combat will feature prominently,” Ioannis Michaletos, an associate of the Institute for Defense & Security Analysis (I.S.D.A) in Athens told The National Herald.
Yeager flew 64 combat missions in World War II and shot down a German jet from a prop plane – that’s how good he was – and so are Greece’s pilots because their training involves near combat runs frequently.
“Greek pilots are up to the tasks involved without saying that this will ultimately change the course of any war which will also be fought on land and at sea in particular. It is an added advantage,” said Michaletos.
If it comes to that, the unthinkable, he said that between pilots that “Dog fights will be the norm especially in the crucial first days of a war,” noting the superiority of the Greek pilots.
Their motto: ‘Αἰὲν Ὑψικρατεῖν – Always Dominate the Heights’. They do.