This year marks the 50th anniversary of the entry of the E-2 Hawkeye into service with the U.S. Navy (for the record, the first flight was Thursday, 21 Oct 1960 – and it was known as the YW2F-1). This was the first purpose built AEW aircraft to enter service. Designed around the radar, rather than adapting an existing airframe, the Hawkeye symbolized function over form – from the 24ft “rotodome” prominently perched over the fuselage, to the quadruple tail and twin turboprops. It wasn’t pretty; but then, it wasn’t meant to win beauty contests.
It was meant for far more deadly competition.
This odd appearing aircraft has been an indelible portion of my life as well. Our acquaintance formally spans over three decades, thousands of hours aloft and over five hundred carrier landings. Although I haven’t strapped into a Hawkeye since my last flight in December 1995 (not coincidentally, the last VAW-122 flight as well), I still feel like I could walk out and with little hesitation, perform a preflight and system startup, it has so ingrained itself in me.
The plan wasn’t always to fly Hawkeyes. Indeed, prior to Pensacola in 1978, my only other encounters were the occasional photo in a book or periodical devoted to something larger about flying and being confronted one morning by a picture of an E-2B, gear up, in a cornfield where it had crashed short of the runway at Offutt AFB out of fuel. I still recall looking at that odd plane, with the big dome over the fuselage and wondering out loud who on earth would want to fly such a thing?Of course, at the time, my heart was set on jets in general and the RA5C Vigilante in particular, but what did I know?
Social introductions came via VAW-122, then assigned to the Kitty Hawk’s airwing, one of two East Coast squadrons on loan to the West Coast while they were transitioning from the E-2B to the E-2C. I was in VT-10 at the time, disappointed that the Vigi pipeline had just been closed and told I was too tall for F-4s, so F-14s were in the plan. And if I continued to play my cards right in the simulators, classroom and most importantly in the air, then the VF pipeline in VT-86 awaited. Into this plan, on a long, lazy Pensacola summer afternoon, the thrum of twin turboprops and a cold, dark interior lit by radarscopes beckoned. Ever the flight hour hound, I of course leapt at the opportunity to go fly a fleet aircraft and see something a little different than what the back seat of a fighter might offer. Two hours later, my world had been turned upside down. I well recall walking from the aircraft, now sitting silently on the tarmac and thinking that this was truly an NFOs airplane. A week of arguing my case with the staff of VT-10, including a final pitch by the CO to stay fighters was met with assent to enter the ATDS pipeline at the conclusion of VT-10.
RVAW-120 provided the initial, up close-and-personal with this flying contradiction. Before the days of glass cockpits and digital controls, pilot and NFO alike described the Hawkeye as having a “Star Wars” backend but a “Waldo Pepper” cockpit. The backend, “tube” or CIC as it was variously known, held three aircrew – initially two NFOs and an enlisted Flight Tech, later changed to three NFOs. All the controls and displays for the weapons system, centered on the radar, a great hulking one megawatt beast that was generated in the forward equipment compartment (FEC) and traveled to and fro through the waveguides just above our heads into the dome above. In fact, well over half of that FEC was turned over to the generation, processing, cooling and troubleshooting of that radar. And therein lay the first great trial and mystery, for if one could manage the setting of the radar processing, the positioning of the aircraft just so, wonderful results could be obtained. Astonishingly small objects could be tracked, even in areas that the community maintained you couldn’t see. It was the juxtaposition of the science of radar with the art of operations, and I learned from some of the best.
To the Fleet then I went and there the real education began. If one word could describe the Hawkeye, it had to be “integrator.” It was the Hawkeye that brought together the individual strengths of the rest of the airwing. It wasn’t easy, given the track record of our predecessors, the E-2A and E-2B which might be described as unfulfilled potential, and there was much wariness about what could be done. But you worked and pushed and learned and worked some more. It wasn’t uncommon to find someone from the VAW squadron stopping in the VF, VS, VA, VAQ and even occasionally HS ready rooms in preparation for a flight. The reverse was substantially less likely. The same held true for spending time with the carrier and when able, the AAW cruiser CIC personnel — brown shoes invading SWOdom’s deep dark (well, red-lit) inner sanctum, but there was method at work here and it centered on integration. When aircraft from a sister service or ally joined the battle group for an exercise, it was the E-2 that brought them in, integrating them into the current flow of operations. Much later, when jointness was being formalized under Goldwater-Nichols, we said we were joint before it was cool to be joint; such was the effect of the E-2.
The E-2 taught us to grow up fast and early; our peers and mentors in the squadron saw to that. Moving to the center seat and attaining the Mission Commander qual as CICO was the goal. But to get there one had to not only be an expert on the aircraft and airwing, but when required, assume the duties of composite warfare commander for the battlegroup. This meant that on any given mission, in addition to all the regularly assigned tasks, you could end up running the air battle for the CVBG, a significant vesting of responsibility in potentially a very junior officer. Just as the aircraft offered a platform that could integrate the disparate elements of the battle group and external forces, inside the aircraft you followed suite. A good mission commander would be listening and talking on anywhere from 4 to seven radios and the ICS, while integrating a visual picture that included hundreds of surface and air tracks along with countless ESM tracks, all the while building a tactical picture in your mind of everything that was going on in a volume of over 3 million cubic nautical miles. No other aircraft anywhere in the world, land- or sea-based could offer the facilities to enable that kind of situational awareness, and it took a special knack to do it right.
But the bond the Hawkeye and I forged wasn’t just in the air. On the ground, ours was a close and at times, testy relationship. As much evolutionary as revolutionary, the E-2 Hawkeye presented a bewildering array of cables, hydraulic lines, enormous canon plug connectors and a variety of black and gray boxes whose nondescript nomenclature belied the magic taking place in their innards. With the overwhelming balance of my ground jobs in aviation maintenance, I had the opportunity, sometimes happily, oft times not, of really learning the ins and outs of what made the plane tick (or not). Joining and leading this expedition of discovery were a long procession of some of the smartest and most savvy maintenance men and women in all of aviation. Just as it required both brain smarts and the touch of an artist to fly the aircraft or operate the weapons system, it took every skill from that of an EE major to the craftiest plumber to keep the aircraft up and flying – and Hawkeye maintainers were the best of the best.
Approaching repairs on the Hawkeye was often like questioning the Sphinx – many questions, fewer, if any answers. Miles of wire and canon plugs with tens or hundreds of tiny, easily bent connecting pins ensured that there were few “easy” solutions. Equipment, not thought of in the late 1950s was tightly packed into an airframe little changed from that time, ensuring flesh would be pinched, knuckles scraped and sacrificial blood shed in dark corners. Temperamental hydraulics in remote areas would pick the most inopportune times to begin to weep in quantities directly proportional to the distance from ready help. Each aircraft, though nominally from a production line was in truth hand built and many assumed their own personalities. Some were easy going and could always be counted on âwhilst others developed personas that only a Stephen King could love (and were christened accordingly). As a post maintenance check NFO (aka “stunt mole”) you rapidly learned which ones to trust and which wouldn’t hesitate to bite your hand.
But it was through the “eyes” of the Hawkeye that my own view of the world grew and changed. Through the thousands of hours there were times of extraordinary challenge and unrelenting boredom; of lives saved and fruitless search. Through four squadron tours with the Hawkeye I’ve been at the center of world events and in the remotest, most God-forsaken reaches on this planet. We’ve flown from the Arctic to equatorial jungles and Mid-eastern deserts. We’ve chased Soviets, Libyans, Iranians, terrorists and smugglers. Flight followed VIPs and directed S-3s on sinkers. Tracked shuttle launches and joined desperate, fuel-starved fighters over a cold North Atlantic with a tanker in the nick of time. Engaged F-16s in ACM and, hanging out of the aft ditching hatch, dropped little blue bombs on target barges. Launched off pitching decks in a Mediterranean mistral and penetrated Olympian-sized thunderstorms off Central America. In many respects, the person I am today is a reflection of time spent in the Hawkeye.
And so now we turn to the 50th Anniversary, noting as we do that in all likelihood the Hawkeye will continue flying well into the current century. As I look at the latest iteration, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, I marvel at the new capabilities it brings to the Fleet and am secretly, deeply envious of those who will fly it. And still, even years after my last flight, the sound of an E-2 entering the break quickens the pulse and mists the eye. . .
Congrats to Grumman and Hawkeyes everywhere on your 50th and here’s to many more years of hunting.