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AWACS Got Off to Slow Start 25 Years Ago

AWACS Got Off to Slow Start 25 Years Ago

By Tech. Sgt. Orville Desjarlais, 552nd Air Control Wing Public Affairs.

Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma -- (AFPN) March 22, 2002 -- The first E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System sortie from Tinker, after the aircraft was delivered here March 24, 1977, never got off the ground.

A concept drawing shows engineers thought about placing the saucer-shaped radar on a forward-swept tail.

Courtesy photo

"We taxied out, did all the preparations, and when the maintenance guys did the end-of-runway checks, one plugged in and said, 'Sir, you've got fuel pouring out of the bottom of the aircraft,'" said retired Lt. Col. Maury Hardy, who was chosen to fly the first E-3. "So we shut down, and we all jumped out of the airplane and did an orderly evacuation."

After the maintenance troops fixed the problem and cleaned up the fuel, the aircrew successfully made their first flight in the aircraft, now numbered 75-0557, on March 31, 1977.

Although the 552nd Air Control Wing is celebrating 25 years of AWACS operations this year, it was more than 30 years ago Air Force officials realized the service needed a successor to the EC-121D Super Constellation.

A competition was opened between Boeing’s modified 707-320B and McDonnell-Douglas' stretch DC-8. After several trials, Boeing was awarded the contract in July 1970 for its 707 to haul around the 30-foot-wide rotating rotodome.

About the same time that Air Force officials were thinking about upgrading surveillance platforms, they also were trying out a new contract philosophy called "fly before buy."

Under this concept, Boeing would have to provide a viable end-product -- flown, tested and thoroughly analyzed -- before the initial delivery could take place. This concept eventually proved to be effective, as the first production model arrived here less than four months after the initial delivery date and at 4 percent above budget.

Boeing engineers submitted concept drawings of the 11,800-pound rotodome that placed the saucer-shaped radar on a forward-swept tail instead of on the fuselage, behind the wings, where it is located today.

Initial flight tests were conducted in 1972 with two competing radar systems from Hughes Aircraft Company and Westinghouse Electric Corporation. The cornerstone of the AWACS platform was the radar and computer system's ability to "look down," pick up aircraft tracks and distinguish them from the surrounding "ground clutter" that limited existing radar systems. Westinghouse's radar, using the Pulse-Doppler principle, outperformed its competition.

In those early years, AWACS' marching orders were to be an airborne early warning radar, alerting North American Aerospace Defense Command to the approach of Soviet Union bombers if they flew toward the United States or Canada.

But the threat from the Soviet Union began to change. In 1973, the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile threat forced President Richard Nixon's administration to try to enhance the AWACS mission by also making it an airborne command and control center for tactical air operations.

Politicians criticized the plane, saying the Navy's E-2 Hawkeye was already doing the job and that the AWACS radar could be jammed too easily. This caused an uphill battle in Congress for funding for the new aircraft.

Complicating the situation, the General Accounting Office published two critical reports about the E-3 program as the budget for the initial six aircraft made its way through Congress. The GAO reported the ability of the system to perform as stated had not been completely proven, and the E-3's ability to survive and operate in a hostile environment remained suspect.

The E-3 calmed all the fears when it passed congressionally mandated tests of its combat survivability and radar-jamming resistance. The tests didn't end until April 1975 when the Senate and House armed services committees gave their nods of approval in the same month.

Overcoming all the obstacles placed before it, the first E-3 rolled out of the Boeing hangar in October 1976, 23 months after Boeing received permission to proceed with operational production.

Almost five months later, Hardy and Joseph Price, another test pilot, tried to take 557 on its first flight out of Tinker when it dumped its fuel on the runway.

After that, "We flew over to the East Coast and did some controlling during an eight-and-a-half hour sortie with an in-flight refueling," Hardy said. "It was a wonderful experience, and it was a privilege to do it."

(Capt. Steven Rolenc and Staff Sgt. Nickol Houston contributed to this article)

Related Images

Maj. Gen. John L. Piotrowski, right, the commander of what was then known as the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing, briefs a Norwegian officer on the many facets of the multi-purpose consoles aboard the E-3A Sentry in 1977.

Courtesy photo

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).

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