Cyprus Air Force

Text and photography by Patrick Dirksen and Frank Mink of Tristar Aviation
The Cyprus Air Force operates no less than eleven mighty Mi-35 ‘Hind’ helicopters, in addition to four SA.342 Gazelles. To understand why 75% of the complete fleet of this relatively small air arm consists of dedicated anti-tank gunships, we need to take a quick look at the recent history of the island.
Mi-35 during a live fire exercise (photo via Cyprus Air Force)
Without taking sides, one can say Cyprus has known a turbulent history. Before and after the country gained independence from the British Empire in 1960, there were multiple periods of violence. In 1974, a coup by Greek colonels led to another period of violence, with Turkish armed forces invading and occupying the northern part of the island. Since then, the island has been divided in two parts, with a UN Buffer Zone in between. Turkish military presence in the northern part is still very heavy today, including allegedly over 300 heavy battle tanks (M48 Pattons and recently also the more modern Leopard). Therefore, it is no wonder the Cypriote Armed Forces invest heavily in anti-tank assets, including the Mi-35s and SA.342s.

The current organization dates back to 1995, when the Cyprus Air Force Command was formed from the National Guard. The ‘55 Sminarchia Machis’ or Combat Group reports directly to the Air Force Command and is responsible for all flying assets. There are three squadrons with helicopters and UAVs, as well as an air defence and a support squadron. Nowadays, all are based at Andreas Papandreou airbase, which is the northern part of the international airport of Paphos.
Mi-24 baking in the sun
450 ME/P (Mira (Antiarmatikon) Elikopteron or Attack Helicopter Squadron)

This is the oldest of the three current flying squadrons. It was founded in 2001 when twelve Mil Mi-35P helicopters were delivered by Russia (one has since crashed in 2006). The squadron number refers to the year 450 BC when a Greek general sailed to Cyprus to expel the Persians. After its founding, 450 ME/P also received two PC-9s and a single BN-2 that were in service at the time. In 2010, these were moved to the newly founded 460 squadron, and instead the SA.342 Gazelles of 449 squadron were added to the unit when their base Lakatamia closed.

The P in Mi-35P stands for ‘Pushka’, meaning cannon. This 30 mm fixed GSh-30K cannon is one of the main features of the Hind helicopter, which can also be armed with 9M120 Ataka V guided anti-tank missiles, unguided S-8 and S-24 rockets and 23 mm cannons, in any combination, under the stub wings. The landing gear of the Cypriote version is fixed, unlike most others, and therefor lighter. For self-defence, the helicopters have a radar warning receiver, chaff, flares, an IR-jammer and of course armour. The other helicopter type in the squadron is the French-built SA.342L1 Gazelle, which can be armed with 4 HOT-3 anti-tank rockets. This helicopter has armoured plates at the bottom and also around the engine.
Where the SA.342 is used solely for anti-tank warfare, the Mi-35 is used as multi-purpose helicopter. The squadron also provides combat support to ground forces, flies JTAC-missions and is used for Medical Evacuation (Medevac). Both types almost always operate together in pairs or groups of three or four. As Gazelle pilot Flt.Lt. Giorgos explained, “the Gazelle is small and therefore low observable. We are in the same squadron, so there is optimal knowledge and cooperation; we really operate as a team!” Despite the different roles the squadron has, training is mostly aimed at missions against a possible invasion from Turkey. As Giorgos said, “The UN are independent and only watch and report. If necessary, we have to do the fighting”.
SA.342 Gazelle
The Mi-35s are nearing the end of their service with the Cyprus Air Force and the search for a replacement is currently ongoing. Amongst others, the SA.342M and EC.665 Tiger have been rumoured to be candidates. However, as base commander Lt Col Michalis Michael, himself an active Mi-35 pilot, explained, “This is a political decision. The air force gives input regarding the required standards, and a competition follows.” One of the desired capabilities is “to fly and fight during day and night”. The Hinds have already been sold to Serbia, but at the moment they are still fulfilling their duty. This summer an order for six Airbus H.145M helicopters has been placed, including an option for another six. Whether these will be the replacement helicopters for the Mi-24s is currently not yet known.
Newest kid on the block: the AW.139 in dedicated SAR colour scheme
460 MED (‘Mira Erevnas Diasosis’ or Search and Rescue Squadron)

This squadron was established in 2010, when the Cypriot government took the exclusive responsibility for search and rescue in its region. Initially, Bell B.206s, two PC-9s and a single BN-2 aircraft were used, but these were quickly replaced with three Agusta-Westland AW.139 helicopters. Obviously, search and rescue (SAR) is the main task of the squadron. Within the unit they say ‘life takes you to unexpected places, but 460 brings you home’. Other tasks are transport, parachute dropping and aerial photography, and since 2014 also firefighting. For this last task, added because of the long fire season in Cyprus (May-November), special training was followed with the Cyprus Police Aviation Unit, which also operates the AW.139 amongst others.
Venerable Bell 206
The AW.139s are mostly tasked with the operational tasks while the B.206s is used for all other duties. The workload on the B.206s is kept as low as possible though, because of their age and the fact that no replacement is planned yet. Despite their age, they are very reliable and easy to maintain. Both the AW.139 of the Cyprus Police Aviation Unit and the AW.139 of 460 squadron alternate a 24/7 readiness state, which is coordinated by the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) in Larnaca. For this, the AW.139 has a double hoist, a strong search light and is NVG-capable. It has no self-defence systems, and because of the weight, armour is only carried when deemed necessary.
470 MMEA (Moíra Mi Epaldroménon Aeroskafón or Unmanned Aircraft Squadron)

The newest squadron is 470 MMEA, which has been operating the Israeli built Aerostar UAV since 2019. Four of these unmanned aircraft have been delivered and the operators are all former helicopter pilots. Different types of cameras are used, and information is available in real time if needed for helicopters and ground stations.

Operational tasks are intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and tactical air support. In addition to these missions, the unit carries out missions such as fire surveillance and search and rescue. The Aerostar can fly to up to 250 km from the ground station and stay in the air for over twelve hours.
Aerostar UAV being refuelled
Training and maintenance

All pilot training is done in Greece, where cadets learn to fly on the Tecnam P-2000, followed by the T-6 Texan II and then the T-2 Buckeye. After about two years, they are awarded their wings and return to Cyprus where, based on the operational needs, they are assigned to either 450 or 460 squadron for their first helicopter flying. For about six months, they fly either the SA.342 or the B.206, after which they are combat ready. Again, depending on the needs, they keep flying these helicopters or transfer to respectively the Mi-35 or the AW.139. Currently, the Cyprus Air Force has some 85 pilots. When 460 squadron was formed, specific SAR training was done by FB Heliservices, with considerable emphasis on night operations. Nowadays, this training is done in-house.

Currently, all maintenance is done in Cyprus. In the past, the AW.139s were sent to the Agusta facility in Belgium for four years and 1,200 hours maintenance, and a new contract for this is expected to be signed soon with Agusta or another party. There is also support from Russia and France when needed. Most helicopters are in a very effective three tone desert camouflage; only the AW.139s are currently receiving a dedicated SAR colour scheme.

All three squadrons participate in national and international exercises, notably Inichios in Greece and Scorpion in Israel. Furthermore, every year, some four live-gunnery exercises are held, in which Mi-35s and SA.342s participate. And every time when other countries deploy in the area, the opportunity is seized to train together. Earlier this year, the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle visited Cyprus during a deployment to the eastern Mediterranean, and multiple missions were flown together.

All in all, it is clear the Cyprus Air Force is ready to play a vital role in the event of any potential war or military invasion from neighbouring Turkey. However, one can only hope training for this is all that’s ever needed, while in the meantime they can serve the people from Cyprus with all their secondary tasks.
SA.342 Gazelle performing a high speed pass.