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Taking fight to the enemy

by Master Sgt. Allison E. Day
Cooperative Cope Thunder Public Affairs

6/24/2005 - ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AFPN)  -- Once the plane is airborne and the fasten seatbelt light goes off, there is a flurry of activity as crewmembers hustle to get their various tasks done.

As the aircraft continues on its heading, the crew of the E-3 Sentry, with its many buttons, switches and gadgets, gets set for their part in a Cooperative Cope Thunder exercise scenario.

The aircraft, an airborne warning and control system, provides airborne surveillance, command, control and communication functions, and early warning detection and tracking of targets at extended ranges in the air and at sea.

“The longest part of the mission is waiting for everything to power up,” said Tech. Sgt. Susan Campbell, a senior surveillance technician with the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron from here. “It usually takes about 45 minutes until we’re able to do anything.”

Sergeant Campbell supervises all other air surveillance technicians and is responsible for all data links.

Data links are used to send electronic information to ground crews so they can see exactly what the crew onboard the aircraft is seeing.

“It’s a giant wireless network used by aircraft, headquarters and ships to exchange information,” Sergeant Campbell said. “We use this information for the decision-making process.”

Like ground controllers, E-3 crewmembers are able to see the big picture.

“Unlike us, ground control is fixed, but we’re able to go wherever the fight is,” said Capt. Christopher Johnson, a senior director with the 962nd AACS. “Wherever we fly, we use a combination of technology, training and awareness of our immediate situation to identify and track where (all aircraft) should be.”

The technology used is a radar system located on top of the aircraft. It allows for precise tracking and control measures while resisting countercontrol measures.

“As a surveillance officer, I have to provide the best possible radar picture so the crew can use the assets necessary to counter the threat,” said Canadian air force Capt. Darren Reck with the 962nd AACS. “It’s exciting to do my job here and to be able to fly as well.”

All E-3 crewmembers play an important part of the mission because the information they give to fighters is what is used to ensure mission success. During flights, a video camera is mounted on the headrest of one of the seats. It records everything that goes on during the mission.

“Recording is used as a tool for debriefing the mission,” Captain Johnson said. “Once the mission is complete we review ‘the fight.’ We look for mistakes and successes, but most of all the teaching points.”

For the surveillance to begin, all aircraft must be identified.

All planes are assigned a unique numerical code by air traffic control that changes with each takeoff, Captain Johnson said. This is one way that the E-3 crew is able to identify the good guys and bad guys, he said.

“The other additional information is in our air tasking order,” Captain Johnson said. “It’s a matter of knowing where (the good guys are) coming from, being on the lookout for them, and usually, the good guys will let you know where they are.”

The crewmembers said the best thing about working aboard E-3 is how quickly they realize the importance of their mission.

“I do like what I do because I'm directly involved in keeping the homeland safe and preserving peace and democracy around the world,” said Tech. Sgt. Julian Joseph, a weapons director with the 962nd AACS.

Although exercise scenarios are different every day, Sergeant Joseph said it is the way he likes it.

“It’s virtually impossible to see and do the same thing each flight because we control different aircraft with different capabilities being flown by different flight leads with different requirements,” he said. “It constantly changes.

“We have to stay calm because we have what is called ‘the God’s eye view,’ the ability to see what the pilot cannot,” Sergeant Joseph said. “There are many people depending on us for certain critical and timely information, so if you sound like you don't know what you're talking about, (the pilots) won't have confidence in the information being passed.”

Crewmembers must take a no-notice written proficiency exam once a year. They also must log a certain number of flights each month to remain qualified in their positions, which is why training exercises are important, officials said.

“Exercises like CCT are what prepare us for real-world missions,” Captain Johnson said. “During all exercise scenarios, attention and focus are intense because we take what we do seriously and try to be the best.”

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