HELLENIC AIR FORCE
FIGHTER AND TEST PILOT
HAF, USFPTS, NTPS & COMAC
"If you can master the F-4, you can master any aircraft in the world". These were some wise and later to comprehend words, an instructor once told young Lieutenant Ioannis (Yannis) Tsolekas during his pilot training at the F-4 training squadron, back in the mid ‘90s. Yannis realised and still realises how true those words are throughout his flight test career until this very day that this article is written. The F-4 is maybe one of the most “strange” fighter jet aircraft designs that were ever built, but so widely and so successfully used for many years by many Air Forces around the world. This design failed most of the military standards against which it was called to comply with, based on the certification process the USAF uses for every new military aircraft design. The unique flying characteristics of this design, required significant pilot compensation and at the same time excellent piloting skills and complete knowledge of aerodynamics. This was because the specific airplane required the pilot to be way ahead of it, and would forgive very few mistakes. The pilots who would quickly realise that, and those who had the skills to understand its uniqueness, were the ones who were able to fly the airplane to its full effectiveness.
For as long he can remember, Yannis wanted to become a pilot and he was always impressed by how high and how fast the airplanes could fly, leaving white contrails over the blue sky of Athens where he lived for the first 9 years of his life. Yannis was born in Athens on August 8, 1967 as the second born son of Patroklos Tsolekas and Stavroula Helidoni. Unfortunately, the family’s first son passed away a few days after his birth, so Yanni’s coming a year later, brought happiness to the couple and they were even happier when another boy, Vasilis, was born 17 months later. The small age difference and the absence of other family members to help the young mother look after the two boys, did not allow Stavroula to continue working. Patroklos was a well-known chef by that time, working at some of the best Athens’ hotels like the Grande Bretagne or famous restaurants like Zonar’s. His reputation gave him the opportunity to get a better paid job at the beautiful island of Rhodos. In the late 60’s, the island was developing fast and everything was looking promising, making it as one of the top tourist destinations in Greece. Tourists from all over the world were coming to enjoy the sunny beaches, the ancient cities and the Greek hospitality that included excellent food. Those jobs though, were seasonal and due to the very limited tourist visits in the November - March time frame, most hotels and restaurants would close for the winter. Since Patroklos would go back to Athens and work during the winter months, the family decided to keep their apartment in Athens as its permanent residence and Stavroula with the boys would go to Rhodos for 3 months during the summer, when the schools were not in session. This pattern was followed for several years but when Patroklos was offered a full year job at the Rhodos Grand Hotel, the family decides to move to the island. So when Yannis starts grade 4, in September of 1976, he has already moved into a new apartment, goes to a new elementary school and makes new friends. The family settles down to their new apartment, buys their first car, and since the boys have grown up a little, Stavroula starts working at the same hotel as her husband. The family is exited to welcome its newest member in February 1980 and this time it’s a girl, and her name is Anastasia. This happiness only lasts for a few more months. Patroklos gets seriously injured in a car accident and passes away 2 weeks later at a hospital in Athens, leaving Yannis as the head of the family at the age of 14. The years to come were very hard for the family and the two boys will have to work every summer when the school was ending at the beginning of June. Little Anastasia was only one-year-old so Stavroula had to stay home to take care of her. This most unfortunate event will play a big role in what happens next and how Yannis ends up becoming a test pilot. All these years Yannis stayed interested in airplanes and read books about aviation while spending quite the time building airplane models. We are in the early 80’s and in Greece there is no such thing as flying schools, so people who wanted to become pilots had to go to flying schools in the USA or the UK.
Ioannis in his uniform in front of an F-4E of 338 Squadron on July of 1991. The Phantom formed the backbone of the Hellenic Air Force from 1974 until the F-16 and Mirage 2000 entered its inventory. However a modernization program gave them the ability to fight in a modern warfare environment, by adding an advanced radar and AMRAAM capability, as well Litening TGP and fire and forget air-ground weapons, like the AGM-65G Maverick. The F-4E will keep serving with HAF and in the next decade, until a new fighter procurement replace them. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
This meant that the expenses to make that happen would be extremely high for the Tsolekas family, while the job opportunities in Greece at that time were limited to the only aircraft carrier of the country, Olympic Airways, making it almost impossible to get hired. Yannis never changed his mind about what he would become when he graduated high school, but now, with the current financial status of the family, there was only one way to make that happen: Hellenic Air Force (HAF) Academy. Yannis finishes with the exams and graduates high school in June of 1985. After the last school day, he travels to Athens, to the Aviation Medical Center of the Greek Air Force, where he successfully completes all medical and physical tests that would allow him to be accepted by the Air Force Academy. This would happen only if his exam scores were above a certain value that depended on the number of applicants and their scores. After completing the medical and physical tests he returns to Rhodos and starts working while waiting for the exam scores to be announced. The waiting is long but he is confident he will make it and when this waiting is over he finds himself at work, listening to the radio broadcast announcing the list of students that would be entering all state universities. He is excited to hear his name among the list of people who would join the Air Force Academy in the coming September. In the next couple of weeks, the family is getting ready to say farewell to Yannis who is about to start a new chapter in his life, one that will last 23 years. On September 16, 1985, Yannis enters the Academy which is called “Ikaron School”, the duration is 4 years and the cadets graduate as 2nd Lieutenants, with a diploma equivalent to the other state’s universities. During the first year the cadets would be “screened” in the Cessna T-41D (a slightly modified for the USAF C-172 that was purchased by HAF), in order to be determined if the cadets would continue their education for the next 3 years as pilots or as a specialist in another field. During the first year, all cadets would complete the basic training and everybody would follow the same academic curriculum. The rest 3 years the curriculum would change, and for the cadets that were able to successfully complete the T-41 training, it would be specifically oriented for pilots. It would be a complete academic curriculum so as the graduating diploma would be equivalent to a university one and it involved very little flying. The only chance to touch a stick during these 3 years was during Sundays, when the cadets would go to the Academy’s airport and fly a glider sortie. They had to patiently wait until after graduation when they would go to Kalamata Air Force Base to complete their pilot training in the T-37 and T-2. Just before they get their first flying assignment to a fighter or a transport squadron.
Yannis enters the Academy as one of the 120 cadets of class 61 and during the first month he completes the basic military training. Later on, his English language level is assessed and because it is very high he is placed in the first out of 4 groups of cadets that would be assed in the T-41. It is right after the Christmas break when he and the rest of his class goes to 360 Squadron (SQ) to start the flying training that would determine whether he would graduate as a pilot 3½ years later. After a short ground school on the airplane and some academics on basic aircraft manoeuvring, Yannis enters the cockpit of the T-41 for the first time. Before that day, there was zero exposure to any aircraft, so everything looked new to him. He is overwhelmed in the beginning but he quickly adapts and feels excited that he finally has the chance to fly an airplane. The program was very demanding since the cadets had to show continuous improvement during the first 11 sorties of instruction and be capable and safe enough to solo during the 12th. Yannis progresses quickly and on the morning of March 18, 1986 he gets his wings after a short flight around the traffic pattern of Tatoi AFB. In the following month he completes the 35 total sorties of the program and returns to the academy to continue the academic curriculum. Until June of 1989 he lives and gets trained in the academy during weekdays and visits his family during Christmas, Easter and summer vacation. During weekends he stays in Athens at a small apartment he rents and tries to relax from the stressful military program of the academy. This program is so demanding and difficult that on June 9, 1989, when class 61 graduates, only half of the cadets that entered the academy almost 4 years earlier, would continue their military career as pilots. Yannis graduate as 13th of his class and he feels very proud for this achievement. A more difficult path is yet to be followed and the next objective is to successfully complete the pilot training that will make him a fighter pilot. This happens at the 120 Training Wing, at the city of Kalamata.
Top: is getting ready for the National Day parade in March 1988 during his 3rd year at the Hellenic Air Force Academy commonly known as SXOLI IKARON. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Middle: : Yannis with other cadets in July of 1986, during his 1st year at the Hellenic Air Force Academy (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Bottom: Yannis after a night flight with the T-41D in March 1986. The T-41 Mescalero entered in service with HAF in 1969 under ΜΑΡ (Military Assistance Program), and equipped 360th Initial Training Squadron with 21 airframes. During 2018 HAF finally decide to replace them with 12 Tecnam P2002JF, after almost 50 years of service! (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
It is November of 1989 when Yannis arrives with the rest of his class in Kalamata and it will be November of 1990 when he successfully completes all stages of flight training and gets his first assignment as a fighter pilot. During this 12 months, he would complete the primary training in the Cessna T-37 Tweet, and the advance and operational training in the North American (later Rockwell) T-2 Buckeye. The primary phase of training at the 361SQ would last approximately 5 ½ months, totalling 79 T-37 sorties and 88 flight hours. The other two T-2 training phases would be completed at the 363SQ in approximately 6 months, totalling 119 sorties and 125 hours.Primarily based on the instructors’ recommendation, students’ performance, fighter squadrons’ requirements, and secondarily on personal preference, the assignments were given to all pilots that successfully completed all phases of training. At that point of time, all fighter squadrons were undermanned, so HAF HQ decided not to send anybody to the helicopters, transport, maritime patrol or firefighting aircraft and everyone was assigned to a fighter aircraft. Mirage F1, A-7 Corsair, F-104 Starfighter, F-5 Freedom Fighter, and F-4 Phantom were the options. The newly delivered Mirage 2000 and F-16 Blk30s were not yet accepting pilots that had just finished training. Half of 61st class had finished training 6 months earlier so they got to pick first. F-1, A-7 and F-104 were taken by that group, leaving the F-4 and the F-5 to the second half and Yannis to pick from. He always wanted to go to the A-7 but now the F-5 looked better than the F-4 primarily because it was a single seater aircraft and stationed close to better to live in cities. From all 5 choices the F-4 was the least favourable, primarily because of the locations they were stationed at, and the fact that it was the only twin seater. The F-4 was designed to have a Weapon’s Systems Officer (WSO) sitting at the back seat because of its systems’ complexity that required a separate person to operate them, while the pilot was responsible for flying the airplane and communicating with ATC, ground radar stations, or other aircraft. HAF’s F-4s were the E model that were configured with stick and throttles in the back seat so it was decided to have young 2nd Lieutenants that had just completed training, to man that seat for a few years before they transition to the front seat. Since the time that these pilots were kept in the back seat varied from 4 to 6 years, which meant minimal stick time, along with the fact that nobody wanted to move to Andravida AFB, made this assignment the least favourable amongst new pilots. Out of the 30 pilots that completed training in Kalamata on November 23, 1990, only 12 got to go to the F-5s. The rest showed up at the gate of Andravida AFB a few days later. One of them was Yannis.
Yannis was disappointed in the beginning but decided to put it behind him and try his best to become a good F-4 pilot even if he had to wait a little longer. Besides, there was a possibility not to stay in Andravida but get a better assignment at Larisa. The F-4E was purchased in the mid 70’s and the aircraft were delivered in 3 squadrons. Two squadrons (338 and 339) were located in the west part of the Peloponnese, at 117FW in Andravida and one (337SQ) in the center of Greece’s mainland at 110FW in Larisa. The recognisance version of the aircraft (RF-4E) was also stationed at 110FW but out of the 18 newly assigned pilots, only one would get to go there. The rest would be split into the 3 fighter squadrons. Yannis was not really interested in this recce role of the aircraft and he would rather prefer the air to air or air to ground role of the other 3 squadrons. This time the ground school was longer because of the complexity of the aircraft and the many systems it was equipped with. On 12 February 1991, exactly five years after his first flight with the T-41, Yannis enters the rear cockpit of the F-4 for his first flight of the transition phase in this magnificent aircraft. An aircraft that will play the most significant role in Yanni’s career and it will make him what he is today. The transition phase for a new “back seater” was relatively small and it lasted 3½ months, completing 33 sorties and 37 hours. It was an introduction to the handling of the aircraft and its primary missions of air to air and air to ground. It was mainly focused on becoming familiar with the systems of the aircraft and the CRM between the two seats. Yannis was fascinated by the low level flight, the terrain masking and the air to ground weapons releases so when he found out that he was not on the list for the 337SQ in Larisa, he decided to ask to be assigned to the 338SQ, the only F-4 squadron specialized in the air to ground role. So upon completion of the transition phase and a two weeks’ vacation to visit his family, he joins 338SQ in June of ’91. In the next two months he completes some additional advance training on aircraft missions and weapons and becomes fully qualified on the type.
Top: : Yannis with a Grob-103 glider at Tatoi AFB in January 1989. 360 Air Training Squadron had been using five Grob G103A aircraft from 1984 till 1999. These gliders had been bought by the Air Force between 1984 and late 1986 in order to provide additional flight training to air cadets of all specialties but mostly to pilots. Its usage was initially scheduled for 2nd and 4th year air cadets, but early enough this had been changed to voluntary use .(Ioannis Tsolekas Archive, further info by https://aviationphotodigest.com/hellenic-air-force-pilot-training/)
Middle: Ioannis before a flight with a T-37 in Feb 1990. The famous "tweety-bird" introduced the Greek pilots to the jet propelled aircrafts after their initial training on propeller driven T-41s. The T-37s were replaced with the introduction of advanced turbo-prop T-6s Texan II. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Bottom: Ioannis in front of a T-2E, in Aug 1990. The USN advanced trainer was selected by HAF for the advanced training stage of the new pilots. Although a highly capable aircraft it can't meet the standards needed for the introduction of fresh from training pilots to fourth generation fighters like the F-16s Block 52 and Advanced (soon to be Vipers) and Mirage 2000-5. As soon as its possible they will be replaced with a modern advanced training aircraft. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
For its time, the F-4E was comparable to the F-15E Strike Eagle of today. It featured two seats, twin engines, muscular performance, a large payload, beyond visual range (BVR) capabilities, and day and night operational capability. Until the entry to service of the F-15, the Phantom was the fighter that concentrated the greatest possible thrust in the smallest possible airframe! Prior to the F-4, the HAF’s reliance upon GCI directions took the initiative away from pilots, at least until the merge. The F-4E’s powerful radar gave its crews early target detection in the general area to which GCI directed them, but throughout the engagement Phantom crews enjoyed a much greater situational awareness. (Tom Cooper, further info by Ioannis Lekkas)
He served at the 338SQ for only 2 years before he got another assignment with the 339SQ. During those 2 years, he planned and executed 250 sorties and logged 260 hours. He flew all possible air to ground missions that the F-4 was flying that time and got to know every corner of the country from a level of 500 feet above ground or “lower”. He participated in several national and international events and exercises while he was from the first to be trained to the newly arrived F-4E SRA aircraft. USAF retired several older generation aircraft while adjusting their defence budget and 28 of those were given to 338SQ. These aircraft had been recently upgraded and equipped with an advanced navigation and weapons delivery system that gave them air to ground capabilities comparable to a 3rd generation aircraft. It was during the acceptance of one of those aircraft that Yannis flew up to 67,800ft to verify its ceiling. This flight was one of the most memorable experiences in his career because it was the one and only time he went so high that he could see the clear curvature of the earth while the sky above him was not that blue any more. At about the same time, HAF decides to assign both air to air and air to ground roles to all three F-4 squadrons and is now working on transitioning them to the additional respective roles. Up to that point 338 was specialized in air to ground and 337 and 339 in air to air. Yanni’s skills and knowledge in the air to ground role helped 339 to quickly achieve successful transitioning into its new additional role. At the same time Yannis was introduced to a more exciting role of the aircraft, that of the air to air. Within a few months Yannis was checked out in all air to air advance phases of training and was now cleared to participate in all squadron activities. One of these activities was to be a member of an alert crew. 339SQ was participating in a rotating schedule of readiness with other HAF squadrons. Two aircraft would either be on a 15-minute alert during the night (30 min after sunset to 30 min before sunrise) from the home base of Andravida or fly to one of the island bases and be there on a 5-minute alert during the day (30 min before sunrise to 30 min after sunset). Yannis started going initially to the island of Limnos in January of 1994 and later to Skyros and Santorini. In the following 6 years he would see many sunrises sitting at the top of the aircraft shelter all dressed up and ready to jump in the cockpit of his F-4. From that spot he could have the best view of the sun, rising from the endless blue of the Aegean Sea to the East. And from the East was where the Turkish aircraft would enter the Athens FIR on a daily basis and overfly the Greek islands. Depending where they were entering from, HAF ops center would scramble one of the readiness formations to intercept them. The 6 years Yannis flew with 339SQ, he was scrambled 27 times to intercept Turkish F-16 or F/RF-4. Several of those were ending up in dog fights like the ones during the Imia crisis in January - February 1996. During that time a small detachment of 6 aircraft were stationed at the island of Santorini to engage the Turks if the crisis were to escalate and Yannis spend several days there, flying intercept missions with his F-4. Yannis was really enjoying his time at the new squadron and to make things better, he was recommended to start his training and transition to the front seat within 8 months after his arrival.
The typical time spent in the rear cockpit those days was 4 to 5 years, depending on how many pilots were in the squadron to man both cockpits. Yannis felt very fortunate that within only 3 years was about to move to the front seat and on May 11, 1994 he flew his last flight in the rear cockpit. This was the last of 352 sorties, totalling 400 hours since he first jumped into the backseat of the Phantom, but it was certain he would move back there in a few years when he would have become an instructor. He was only hoping that this would be delayed more than enough so he can enjoy the feeling of flying from the front seat. The transition to the front seat lasted approximately 7 months and after 67 sorties and 76 hours of training he was fully qualified in the aircraft. In the following 3 years Yannis enjoyed flying from the front seat, becoming a 2 ship initially and then a 4 ship formation leader, logging 450 hours in 385 sorties. It was during these years that he was able to understand the uniqueness of the aircraft and appreciate its flying characteristics and performance. In November of 1997 he attends the instructor’s ground school and in January of 1998 he starts a 12 sortie training course to become a flight instructor. In the next year, Yannis continues flying from both cockpits building more experience while passing his knowledge and skills to new F-4 back and front seaters.
Top: An SRA F-4E Phantom II during a low level flight at the west coast of Zakynthos island. The SRA featured advanced Navigation and Weapon-Delivery System (NWDS), Airborne Video Tape Recorder (AVTR), Have Quick radios, improvements to the AN/APQ-120 radar for the air-to-ground role, and hey were equipped with “smokeless” upgraded J79 engines. All SRA Phantoms arrived in the standard USAF livery (American Hill Grey). (Ioanis Tsolekas Archive, further info by George Karavantos, https://aviationphotodigest.com/hellenicphantoms/ )
Middle: Yannis (1st from right) with other 339 Squadron pilots during a deployment at Souda AFB in Crete, in October 1993. (Ioanis Tsolekas Archive)
Bottom: Yannis at Limnos Forward Air Base during a 5min alert readiness (Ioanis Tsolekas Archive)
A pair of 339 SQ F-4E parked outside No1 aircraft shelter at Santorini AFB. They brought the replacement crew. Readiness crew changed every Monday and Thursday. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis during a flight at the back seat of an F-4E Phantom II
of 338 Squadron in March 1992 (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
In March of 1999 and in anticipation of being promoted to a Major, he attends the USAF Squadron Officer’s School (SOS) at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery Alabama. Being able to attend this school and understand the organization of another Air Force, while interacting with other officers in a multinational and multicultural environment, was proven very important in the development of Yanni’s character as an officer and as a person. He worked very hard during the 3 months he spent in the States and he was honoured to complete the course as a Distinguished Graduate.Upon returning to 117FW he takes over as chief of base security. This is his first office job while being responsible for the security of all personnel and equipment on base. He continues to fly as a support pilot for 339SQ, primarily from the back seat, providing training to new pilots that were transitioning to the type or to the front seat. Back in the 80’s the Eurofighter Typhoon was a 4th generation candidate aircraft for HAF but due to major problems within the consortium, the F-16 was purchased instead. In the 90’s the airplane was being developed and by 1998 the aircraft was ready to be sold. Different nations in Europe and Asia were approached and Greece was one of them. There was a big rumour for quite some time that Greece would not only purchase the aircraft but also enter the consortium and participate in the development phase that was still going on. At that point the requirement for test pilots and flight test engineers was generated and in 1999 HAF decides to send a number of pilots and engineers for training. The first pilot and engineer were sent in 2000 to Boscombe Down, UK to be trained at the Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS), with two more to follow in 2001 and another two in 2002. The request for training was made in 1999 to both ETPS and USAF TPS but the American school had no positions available for that year. In the early 2000 though a pilot position was offered by USAF for the class that would start in January and in April of that year HQ requests people of certain age and experience to participate in the selection process. Most pilots did not know what this assignment was about since none has ever been there in the past. They were also very hesitant to apply when they found out that this involved a very difficult and demanding training with a not so favourable assignment after graduation. The graduate would join the newly established Flight Test Department with the rest of the ETPS graduates. The problem was that this would be a department of the Air Tactics Center which was located at Andravida AFB and, as previously mentioned, it was the least favourable Air Force Base. For Yannis though, this assignment would have no impact to his personal life that was now well established in Patra, the fourth biggest city of Greece, some 70km from Andravida. It would have major impact to his professional life, but at this point he could not imagine in what way. Yannis departs Greece on October of 2000 and he first spends 9 weeks at Lackland AFB in San Antonio Texas for a specialized technical English language course. He then arrives at one of the most famous places of aerospace in the world, Edwards AFB. Edwards is home to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, USAF’s Flight Test Center and its prestigious Test Pilot School. This is where NASA and the Air Force conducts its research, development, test and evaluation of newly developed aerospace vehicles and systems since the end of WWII, and this is where the people who conduct these activities get trained. Through a very rigorous and demanding course, TPS trains already experienced pilots, engineers and navigators to become highly adaptive, critical-thinking flight test professionals that will lead and conduct flight test and evaluation of new designs. Yannis successfully underwent the 48-weeks course, completing all phases of academic and flight training. During this time, he flew 16 different types of aircraft, logged 150 hours and it was then when he first realized how true the words of his F-4 instructor were. Having flown the F-4 for so long, really helped him fly all these types of aircraft and better understand all concepts of flight testing.
Top: Yannis during IOS graduation at Maxwell AFB, Montgomery AL, March 1999. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Middle 1: Yannis in the front cockpit of TPS F-16B, getting ready for another training flight in April 2001. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Middle 2: Yannis in a F-15B during a Closed Loop Handling Qualities (CLHQ) formation flight with a T-38B over Edwards AFB. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Bottom: Yannis in front of a MIG-15 at the TPS ramp before his last curriculum flight.(Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)The USAF Pilot School is overhauling its curriculum, cramming new essentials into its already jam-packed and intensive 48-week program of studying and flying. The new coursework—adding cyber studies and remotely piloted aircraft, among other topics—is being wedged in alongside time-honored fundamentals aimed at producing the elite aircrews needed to evaluate and assess ever more sophisticated USAF equipment Accepting a mere 10 percent of the rated officers who apply each year, the TPS produces just 50 graduates annually—and very soon, that will drop to 40. Contrary to the school’s name, graduates include engineers and combat systems officers as well as pilots from across the service, turning them into test and evaluation experts. The TPS, located at Edwards AFB, Calif., boasts an eclectic mix of aircraft, meant to expose students to the widest possible variety of flying experience. On top of an aggressive flying program, though, comes an extremely demanding academic program through which graduates earn a master’s degree in flight test engineering. (https://www.airforcemag.com/)
Ioannis Tsolekas in-front of a MiG-15 UTI which he flew while at USAF Test Pilot School. In the 1980s, the United States purchased a number of Shenyang J-4s along with Shenyang J-5s from China via the Combat Core Certification Professionals Company; these aircraft were employed in a "mobile threat test" program at Kirtland Air Force Base, operated by the 4477th "Red Hats" Test and Evaluation Squadron of the United States Air Force. As of 2015 MiG-15UTI's and MiG-17's are operated by a civilian contractor at both the USAF and US Naval Test Pilot Schools for student training. (Tom Cooper)
Yannis is helping his wife Kiki to strap in the rear seat of a T-38C for a high-speed taxing ride
at Edwards AFB during the “spouse day” event at TPS. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis in the F-16D VISTA ( Variable stability In-flight Test Aircraft)
during another CLHQ formation flight with a T-38B (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis with (left to right) class mate Achilles Sakis, flight instructor Lars Hoffman, and TPS commandant
George Ka’iliwai III, returning from a curriculum check ride in a C-12 (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis in front of a T-43 (a modified Boeing 737-200 used by the United States Air Force for training combat systems officers) before a Qual Eval flight. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis in a T-38B from Edwards AFB, during a training flight over the Mojave desert. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis returns to Greece after the Christmas vacation and in January of 2002 he joins the Flight Test Department of the Air Tactics Center in Andravida. Initially he is one of the 4 test pilots who work to establish the new department and finally the chief test pilot. He gets his currency back in the F-4 and for the following 6 years he serves as a support pilot for 338SQ. He is the senior instructor for the transition to the upgraded F-4, creating the training syllabus and acting as an evaluator of other transitioning pilots. During the time Yannis was being trained at TPS, HAF F-4s were going through a major avionics upgrade that included an advance navigation and weapons release system, a new radar, a Head Up and 3 Multi-Functional Colour Displays with a HOTAS system. This made the aircraft’s capabilities equivalent to the ones of a 3rd generation aircraft, especially now that it was able to carry the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. The year before his retirement Yannis also assisted the Standardization and Evaluation Directorate of the Greek Tactical Air Force Command due to the lack of an F-4 Stan Eval Officer at the HQ. He performed all tactical flight evaluations to confirm pilot’s competence, compliance with orders and manuals and identify issues to improve flight safety and standardization. During the 6 years of service at the Flight Test Department he was the project manager or the lead test pilot in various aircraft stores certification and systems testing programs, acceptance tests, and operational tests and evaluations of new aircraft. Some of these programs included the third and final phase (FOT&E) of the F-4 upgrade program, the acceptance of all 8 new medium range transport aircraft C-27J Spartan HAF purchased from Italy, and the certification of ALQ-167 jamming and AACMI FPR pods in the F-4 and F-16. Unfortunately, Greece never entered the Eurofighter consortium and further more never bought the aircraft. This meant that the primary objective for the existence of the flight test department also seized to exist. Furthermore, several people at HQ did not fully understand the concept and potential of a test pilot and overall the Air Force was not mature enough to implement flight testing into its structure. Having to continuously prove yourself became very tiring and at the end of the third year since his arrival, Yannis could see that his flight test career was not going anywhere close to what he was hoping for when he was graduating from TPS. He requested to return back to one of the F-4 squadrons and go operational for one more time. He was denied and as other test pilots and flight test engineers of the flight test department were leaving instead, he felt frustrated and disappointed. For the following two years he continued to work hard and requested taking over as an OPS Officer or Squadron Commander. When he saw that younger officers were taking over instead, he realized that his military career was also not going the way he was hoping for and totally disappointed he resigned on May 8, 2008, after taking his last flight in the F-4. On June 28 he officially retired the Air Force having completed almost 23 years of service and having flown 2,700 hours in 20 different types of aircraft with the 1950 of those in his beloved F-4.
In August of 2008, Yannis and his family moves for one more time to California, this time to Mojave, not very far from Edwards AFB. At the end of 2007 he was able to have two job offers, one from ETPS in the UK and one from the National Test Pilot School (NTPS) in the USA. The familiarity with the area, the Greek community of the Antelope Valley that met 7 years ago, and the familiar way of doing training business in the USA, made him accept the test pilot instructor job at NTPS. Within the first two months he was able to convert his Greek pilot license and with a FAA single and multiengine Commercial Pilot License (CPL) he started flying with the school’s airplanes. Going back from the fast moving fighter jets to the slow moving propeller aircraft, felt very awkward but Yannis quickly adapted and started being checked out in almost all fixed wing aircraft that the school was operating. The amazing thing about being an instructor at NTPS was that you could fly a wide variety of aircraft that ranged from the Schleicher ASK-21 glider to the Cessna 172, to the Cirrus SR-22, to the Beechcraft BE-35 Bonanza, to the Piper PA-34 Seneca, to the Cessna C-441 Conquest, to the Beechcraft C-90 King Air, to the North American Sabreliner, to the Aermacchi MB-326 Impala, to the Aero L-39 Albatros, to the Northrop T-38 Talon, to the Mig-21 Fishbed. The wide variety of aircraft and the highly experienced instructors made NTPS a superb training school for test pilots and flight test engineers and Yannis was now one of the instructors there. In February of 2009, he takes over as the director of operations, overseeing the day to day operation by making sure that all courses complete their daily schedule safely and effectively. He keeps track of all pilot currencies and assigns academic and flight instruction tasks based on course requirements and aircraft availability. He maintains this position for 2 years but when Chinese students started coming to NTPS for training he takes over as the course coordinator for their specialized course. He will keep this position until February of 2017 when he leaves for China. During these 8 ½ years as an instructor he provided classroom instruction to student test pilots and flight test engineers from 15 different countries and industries or organizations like the FAA, CASA, CAAC, and DLR. He provided classroom, simulator, and flight instruction on performance, flying qualities and systems testing, emphasizing on unique performance and flying characteristics of an unknown airplane, as well as its civilian and military certification process. He also provided tutoring on test plan and report writing and supervised student projects. He flew almost all NTPS fixed wing aircraft and when he resigned his job in February of 2017 he had logged 1770 hours in 20 different types of aircraft. During the time he spent in the USA, he was able to obtain his FAA Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), his Certified Flight Instructor License with an Instrument rating (CFI/CFII) and the very important Cat 1 Flight Test Rating in his EASA CPL.
Top: Yannis after a baseline flight for a store certification in a HAF F-16 Blk50 at N. Anhialos AFB (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Middle 1: Yannis is getting ready for another test flight with the prototype F-4E (AUP), loaded with 4 MK-83 bombs. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Middle 2: Yannis with his fellow FTE Dimitris Papavasiliou after a C27J acceptance flight. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Bottom: Yannis at the controls of a C-27J Spartan during an acceptance flight at Alenia Aeronautica in Torino, Italy. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Ioannis Tsolekas running project is test piloting the new Chinese airliner, the Comac C919. It is a narrow-body twinjet aircraft developed by Chinese aerospace manufacturer Comac. The development programme was launched in 2008, production of the prototype began in December 2011, it rolled out on 2 November 2015 and the aircraft's maiden flight was on 5 May 2017. Its first commercial deliveries are expected in 2021 to China Eastern Airlines. The aircraft, primarily constructed with aluminium alloys, is to be powered by either CFM International LEAP or ACAE CJ-1000A turbofan engines, and be able to carry 156 to 168 passengers in a normal operating configuration up to 5,555 km (3000 nmi). It is intended to compete primarily with the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo. As of 31 August 2018, Comac has 1008 commitments including 305 firm orders, mostly from Chinese leasing companies or airlines, with the exception of GE. (Copyright Tom Cooper, further info by Wikipedia)
Yannis returning from a F-18B Qualitative Evaluation (Qual Eval) flight
in September 2011 (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis after his check ride in an
Aero L39 Albatross (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis after a student project flight in a Grumman HU-16 Albatross (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis in a Aermacchi MB326 Impala during a student test pilot training flight. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Being a course coordinator means a great deal of responsibility to the customers. The course coordinator makes sure that the people sent to NTPS, get the best possible training and successfully graduate the course as test pilots or flight test engineers. Yanni’s hard work with the Chinese students was appreciated and in 2016 was offered a job as a test pilot for the Flight Test Center of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China. COMAC was building its first single aisle airliner and experienced test pilots were needed to work for the developmental test and certification of the C919. Yannis accepted the offer and in February 2017 he moved with his family in Shanghai were he now lives and works. He is one of COMAC’s test pilots, flying C919 test flights, assisting in the development and evaluation of the aircraft’s control laws at the engineering simulator and iron bird, and participating in the design process of the cockpit of the future twin aisle aircraft (C929). He is also providing continuation of training to COMAC’s test pilots and flight test engineers and consultation to test pilot management office and various engineering principles. Yannis is a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) since 2002 and an Associated Fellow since 2011. The society’s primary objective is to promote air safety and sound aeronautical design by passing to the test community all lessons learned from previous programs and assisting in the professional development of the experimental test pilots who play a major role in the aeronautical advancement. Yannis has been an active member of the society and has attended many its symposia. Yannis is married to Kiki Pastounaki. They know each other since 1988 and they got married in 1994. They are blessed with wonderful triplets, two sons, Patroklos and Nikitas, and one daughter Maria. All three are middle school students at the Shanghai American School.
Yannis was born and raised in Greece. The most unfortunate loss of his father at the age of 14 led his family to an unfavourable financial status that impacted his career path. He became a military instead of a civilian pilot. Becoming a military pilot gave him the opportunity to become a test pilot. Yannis felt unfortunate for getting a F-4E assignment upon finishing pilot training but it was this airplane that made him a better test pilot. He was very disappointed when he resigned the Air Force. Not because of the Air Force itself, but because of the people that made certain decisions. Those decisions resulted in Yanni’s take off for another career path and when he landed in Mojave, California he became an instructor for the National Test Pilot School. His work there not only made him a better professional but it gave him the opportunity to get his current job in China. Yannis is a firm believer of everything happens for a reason or “Κάθε εμπόδιο για καλό” as it is said in Greek. He is one of the only four Greek test pilots and the only one who works abroad. He became what he is today through hard work but the foundations were laid back in Greece, at the “Ikaron School”, at Kalamata AFB, and at Andravida AFB flying the F-4E. Yannis recognizes that he continues to carry the Greek flag on his flying suit during every single flight he has flown since he left the Air Force, initially in the United States of America and now in China.
Yannis is stepping out of a Beech 76 Duchess after a flight over the US. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis during a test flight in a Swearingen SA-226T Merlin. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis in front of the main NTPS hangar in between a Slingsby T67 Firefly (left) and a DE Havilland Chipmunk (right). (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis in front of the second C919 prototype (A/C 102). He is now assigned to this aircraft and performs various test tasks with it. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
Yannis during a control law evaluation at the engineering simulator. (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
The 2nd C919 test aircraft is taking off from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai for its first flight (Ioannis Tsolekas Archive)
FURTHER PICTURES FROM IOANNIS CAREER
Special Thanks to Ioannis Tsolekas for his marvelous biography and we hope that he will keep flying safely with the Greek flag on foreign cockpits.