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E-3 Sentry celebrates 30 years in Air Force's fleet

by Polly Orcutt
552nd Air Control Wing Public Affairs

4/4/2007 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFNEWS)  -- It all started 30 years ago -- March 23, 1977, to be exact -- when the first E-3 Sentry touched down on Oklahoma soil. The arrival of aircraft tail number 75-0557 began a new era for the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing, and for air surveillance.

To celebrate the occasion, wing officials conducted an arrival ceremony the next day and invited the base and local community leaders to help welcome the new aircraft.

The story of the E-3 goes back to April 1975, when a systems integration demonstration was conducted on several E-3 prototypes and the decision was made to produce the aircraft flown today.  The E-3 replaced the EC-121D Super Constellation. 

In August 1975, four E-3 aircraft completed a 16-month test period at the Air Force Test and Evaluation Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and engineering and test evaluations began on the E-3 aircraft at Tinker.

These events led up to the E-3 achieving "Initial Operational Capability" on April 16, 1978.

By the end of 1981 the wing had received 25 aircraft and had flown missions to assist in apprehending drug smugglers in Florida;, deployed four E-3As and more than 200 personnel to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in support of European Liaison Force-One, known as ELF-One; and while on scramble over Iceland, located and saved a lost civilian aircraft. 

An E-3 also completed an around-the-world mission. During the flight, the E-3 touched down in Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and the Azores.

During the 1980s, E-3s continued to fly ELF-One missions. The final two E-3s returned from Saudi Arabia on April 16, 1989, marking the end of the ELF-One commitment. The 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing logged more than 6,000 sorties and 87,000 flying hours in eight and a half years during ELF-One.

The E-3 achieved "Full Operational Capability" in June 1984 when Air Force officials accepted delivery of the final aircraft. The 961st AWACS at Kadena AB, Japan, was activated on May 23, 1980, and the 962nd AWACS at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, on July 1, 1986.

The 1990s took the Sentry back to Asia. On Jan. 17, 1991, Airmen began flying in support of Operation Desert Storm, the war with Iraq. 

Aircrews from the 552nd AWACW flew 7,314.7 combat hours during Desert Storm, with a combined 91.36 percent mission-capable rate. They controlled 31,924 strike sorties, where 88,500 tons of munitions were dropped, without losing a single Allied aircraft in air-to-air action. In addition, E-3s controlled 20,401 aerial refueling sorties. The aerial tankers off-loaded 178.4 million gallons of fuel to 60,543 receivers. Furthermore, 552nd AWACW Airmen also assisted in 39 of 41 Allied air-to-air shoot downs during Desert Storm.

Throughout the 1990s, the E-3 also provided support to NATO operations Provide Comfort and Southern Watch.

The first and only crash of an Air Force E-3 occurred at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, Sept. 22, 1995.  The E-3, tail number 77-0354 and call sign Yukla-27, crashed during take-off and 22 Airmen and two Canadian air force crewmembers lost their lives in the crash.

Air Force officials later determined that geese had been ingested into the engines of Yukla 27 during takeoff, causing the aircraft to crash.

In April 2001, 552nd Air Control Wing Airmen celebrated the 10th anniversary of the signing a cease-fire agreement while patrolling the no-fly zone over the skies of Iraq.

During operations Northern and Southern Watch, the 552nd ACW had more than 250 support personnel on location at any given time.

On Sept. 11, 2001, 552nd ACW aircrews were directed by higher headquarters to patrol the skies over the eastern quadrant of the United States following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The 552nd was one of the first units tasked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command to protect the airspace over North America. These sorties are still flown under Operation Noble Eagle.

Ten days later, the wing received deployment orders to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

In October, five aircraft and 180 NATO personnel deployed from Geilenkirchen, Germany, to Tinker for Operation Eagle Assist. This was the first time in the 52-year history of NATO this alliance has been used to defend the United States. In January 2002, two more NATO aircraft deployed to Tinker.

By February 2002, E-3 crews had flown 14,000 Operation Noble Eagle sorties. In May, the NATO AWACS aircraft returned home.

By October of that year, crews of the 552nd reached a significant milestone, logging 10,000 flying hours in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The accomplishment was achieved by the 968th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron deployed to Central Asia. The unit has been supporting OEF since the end of September 2001.

Between May 28 and June 8, 2003, 552nd ACW personnel deployed in support of OEF and Operation Iraqi Freedom returned to Tinker AFB. Sentry crews provided 24-hour surveillance of OIF and OEF battle space. They supported OEF from Sept. 27, 2001, to May 23, 2003, and flew 1,259 sorties totaling 15,713 hours. Crews flew OIF missions from March 19 to June 8, 2003, during that time they flew 313 sorties totaling 3,115 hours.

The return of personnel and aircraft to Tinker ended a 13-year continuous presence in the region. For the first time in the 25-year history of the E-3, all 28 aircraft were at home station. And after almost four years on home station, E-3 crews are, once again, forward deploying in support of OEF and OIF.

The mission of the E-3 continues to grow and change. Aircraft and personnel now deploy to Manta, Ecuador, to support civil law enforcement agents in stopping the flow of illegal drugs from Latin America into the United States and Canada.

The E-3 also flies missions around the world to aid in the security of the president of the United States and assists federal agencies in relief efforts, such as those in the devastated areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The wing flew 30 sorties totaling 276 flying hours coordinating relief efforts of both civilian and military aircraft.

Whether surveying the skies over the United States, or over land and sea around the world, the E-3 remains America's eye in the sky.

This is a mission the E-3 Sentry has done for 30 years. With continued upgrades these aircraft will continue to effectively perform for many years to come.

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