NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

After 40 years, AWACS still 'eye in the sky' over OKC

At 32,000 feet in the air, the rotating radar disk on top of one of Tinker Air Force Base's Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS planes moans and wails.

"It can be interesting hearing her sing to you for nine or 10 hours," said AWACS pilot Capt. Tommy "Pops" Reagan.

The 30-foot-wide disk turns at a speed of about 6 revolutions per minute and provides the crew with a continuous serenade during sorties.

The bulk of the U.S. Air Force's 33 Boeing E-3 Sentries are housed at Tinker Air Force Base, about 27 planes total. The planes and their rotating black radar disks are a common sight in the sky over the Oklahoma City metro area.

The AWACS program celebrates its 40th anniversary at Tinker Air Force Base this year and the same aircraft that went into service at Tinker in March 1977 are still flying.

With its distinctive rotating radar dome, the E-3 sentry, more commonly known as AWACS, surveils the land, air and water, far beyond the U.S. borders. The planes are designed to provide information on the location and movements of enemy forces and direct fighter jets in aerial warfare. The radar has a range of more than 250 miles.

AWACS stands for Airborne Warning and Control System and the odd-shaped planes are known as the "eyes in the sky" for U.S. and NATO forces.

While AWACS uses the latest radar software, not much else has changed on board the aircraft over the years.

"I think it shows how well these aircraft were designed that they are still in service," said Senior Airman Shayan Khan.

Stepping onto the aircraft is a bit like walking into the 1970s, with gas masks that look like something a touch more primitive than those in the 1986 movie "Top Gun."

There's also a coat rack at one end of the plane with wooden hangers — the crew said nobody uses it and they don't really understand why it's there. A vintage-looking "No Smoking" sign graces the lavatory door.

Capt. Gabriel Gricol's mother and father are also both Air Force veterans and both worked on the crew of AWACS planes during their military careers.

"My parents were both on board this plane," Gricol said, pointing at the cabin floor. "I knew when I was a kid that this is what I wanted to do."

In the cockpit, the four-man flight crew uses analog flight instruments, known as "steam gauges," to pilot the four-turbofan jet engine aircraft.

"I actually like flying using the steam gauges," said Reagan, who is a third-generation Air Force pilot. "I think it makes you a better pilot."

There's no microwave on board, but the crew can heat leftovers and cans of soup — as long as the labels have been removed — in an antiquated-looking metal oven in a small galley area. The crew can even use the oven to bake cookies.

"It makes it smell great in here," Gricol said.

Near the oven, two rows of triple-decker bunks provide a place for crew to rest during extended missions. The Air Force won't reveal exactly how long the E-3 Sentry can stay airborne or its range. What the military will say is that the planes can stay in the air for more than 8 hours without refueling and also have the capability for in-air refueling.

Forty years after its introduction, the AWACS remains the leading battle command and control aircraft in the world. The aircraft still do everything from coordinating with the U.S. Coast Guard to locate drug smugglers in the Caribbean to providing surveillance for the 13-year-long combat mission Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which ended in 2014.

"A phrase that we use a lot is 'God's eye view,' " said crew member 1st Lt. Kevin Wise, whose job is to communicate to other planes information AWACS has gathered. "A fighter pilot has a limited view from the cockpit and I help them see what we can see."

Related Photos
<p>The rotating radar disk aboard the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base is 30 feet in diameter and 6 feet thick; mounted 11 feet above fuselage. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman]</p>

The rotating radar disk aboard the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base is 30 feet in diameter and 6 feet thick; mounted 11 feet above fuselage. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-595d1d541d5de54b442d977c7e670b4f.jpg" alt="Photo - The rotating radar disk aboard the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base is 30 feet in diameter and 6 feet thick; mounted 11 feet above fuselage. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] " title=" The rotating radar disk aboard the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base is 30 feet in diameter and 6 feet thick; mounted 11 feet above fuselage. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> The rotating radar disk aboard the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base is 30 feet in diameter and 6 feet thick; mounted 11 feet above fuselage. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-64f9e77bc3f7e830b747c08e20ae7faf.jpg" alt="Photo - Capt. Tommy Reagan, left, and 1st Lt. Matthew Kogut use analogue flight instruments in the cockpit of an E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] " title=" Capt. Tommy Reagan, left, and 1st Lt. Matthew Kogut use analogue flight instruments in the cockpit of an E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Capt. Tommy Reagan, left, and 1st Lt. Matthew Kogut use analogue flight instruments in the cockpit of an E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c9ffccac6314a00463b2f02791d2512a.jpg" alt="Photo - Sr. Airman Shayan Khan sits at a work station aboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] " title=" Sr. Airman Shayan Khan sits at a work station aboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Sr. Airman Shayan Khan sits at a work station aboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c3ba5d82efd3b27cdf4d77178c888f7e.jpg" alt="Photo - Flight crew work on a Boeing E-3 Sentry in the 552 Flight Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] " title=" Flight crew work on a Boeing E-3 Sentry in the 552 Flight Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Flight crew work on a Boeing E-3 Sentry in the 552 Flight Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-f37417bd1b1e344a1d4f7a52b02f44ba.jpg" alt="Photo - The Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS flew its first mission at Tinker Air Force Base in March 1977. The same planes are still in service 40 years later. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] " title=" The Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS flew its first mission at Tinker Air Force Base in March 1977. The same planes are still in service 40 years later. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> The Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS flew its first mission at Tinker Air Force Base in March 1977. The same planes are still in service 40 years later. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-149723e3e7935153045145924addbd6d.jpg" alt="Photo - A Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane sits on the flight line at Tinker Air Force Base. The AWACS program celebrates its 40th anniversary this year at Tinker. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman.] " title=" A Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane sits on the flight line at Tinker Air Force Base. The AWACS program celebrates its 40th anniversary this year at Tinker. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman.] "><figcaption> A Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS plane sits on the flight line at Tinker Air Force Base. The AWACS program celebrates its 40th anniversary this year at Tinker. [Photo by Greg Singleton, The Oklahoman.] </figcaption></figure>
Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›

Comments