NOVEMBER 2016 | 27
ensures it can land at any suitable
airport in the world, Hunsberger said.
New weather radar, radio altimeters,
antennas and a global positioning
system also have been added.
Boeing will conduct flight tests on
the modified Air Force and NATO
aircraft through the end of next year
before returning them to their owners.
The remaining AWACS planes will
receive enhanced flight-deck systems
installations at Tinker Air Force Base
in Oklahoma City and at Manching
Flugplatz in Manching, Germany. Military
personnel will make the changes on the
other American-based AWACS. Airbus
Defence and Space Military Aircraft
Center, in Manching, which contracts with
NATO to perform repair and maintenance
services, will update the aircraft in
Europe under Boeing oversight—
indeed, a second NATO AWACS is
already undergoing modifications.
An AWACS aircraft is readily
identifiable by its black and gray dome,
which measures 30 feet (9.1 meters) in
diameter, is 6 feet (1.8 meters) thick and
is mounted 11 feet (3.4 meters) above
the fuselage on two struts.
Although an aircraft carrying a dome
can’t maneuver during flight as fast
as one that flies without, any other
effects from surveillance equipment
standing tall on the back of the
fuselage are minimal, said Boeing
test pilot Mark Mitchell.
“It’s aerodynamic; the air goes
over the top of it,” Mitchell said of the
dome. “When landing the airplane, you
don’t know it is back there. It’s very
transparent” to the flight crew.
What’s different overall with the
AWACS, compared with a more modern
aircraft, is it requires more precise
control when touching down and more
instrument checks before departing,
the veteran test pilot said.
“It’s a good flying airplane,” Mitchell
said. “It’s been a workhorse for a long
time. It makes me feel young again.”
Gragg Hart has been involved
with the AWACS for more than three
decades—nearly the life of the unique
military aircraft. He served as an
Air Force navigator for 14 years,
logging 5,000 hours. He’s been a
Boeing avionics systems engineer
for 19 years, providing upgrades
and solutions for the plane.
“I have had the bittersweet task
of eliminating my position—the
navigator—on the aircraft,” he noted.
The E-3 Sentry typically operates
with 18 to 20 people on board,
comprising the flight crew, a surveillance
team and a weapons group. A dozen
people sit in rows filled with computer
consoles, interpreting radar data and
consulting with commanders, turning
the main cabin into an office-like
atmosphere. At the rear of the aircraft
are bunk beds for rest breaks.
Hart compares the AWACS aircraft to
a B-52 bomber, as a resilient Boeingbuilt
aircraft that ultimately may reach
100 years of service. It is unmatched
for conflict resolution—for providing
local and theater decision-makers key
situational and tactical information—in
spite of its advancing years, he said.
“It’s an aging aircraft, that’s true,
but everything ages,” Hart said.
“We’ve got the talent in the seats
and at the air bases, and at Boeing,
to keep them flying.” •