Tinker AWACS aircraft arrives at Boeing Seattle for major modification

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- An E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft belonging to the 552d Air Control Wing at Tinker arrived at Boeing Seattle on 22 Oct, 2014.  This aircraft, designated as D-1, will be undergoing a major cockpit avionics modification in a development program known as DRAGON.

DRAGON stands for Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation. And just as its name suggests, finding parts for the aging AWACS fleets, particularly on the flight deck, continues to be more and more difficult.

The DRAGON flight deck modernization replaces most analog indicators with modern digital multicolor graphical displays. In addition, nearly all of the 1970s avionics are being replaced with updated airspace-compliant subsystems. This modernization also allows for elimination of the navigator, dropping the crew size from four to three, as well as adding a Mode-5 Identification Friend or Foe capability.

All aircraft infrastructure such as engines, airframe and mission systems will remain, but the upgraded E-3 flight deck will host a plethora of new technology currently used by the commercial airline industry.

Digital satellite-based communications; modern flight management system suite architecture; and a digital cockpit that includes five glass display screens will offer aircrews easy-to-use and customizable engine, navigation and situational awareness data.

Other new capabilities will include weather radar that can predict wind shear, an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, warnings, cautions and advisories via an Engine Instrument and Crew Alert System and a fully digital flight deck audio distribution system.

In addition to hard-to-find replacement parts, another reason for the AWACS upgrade is due to changing national and international regulations for civil airspace.

The International Civil Aviation Organization has imposed new flight mandates that begin to take effect in 2018. This flight deck modernization is required for E-3 aircraft to meet the mandates and provide broader access to airspace.

"The operational requirement for the DRAGON modification is to allow E-3 AWACS aircraft to transit world-wide and establish operationally desired orbit areas in accordance with new airspace mandates," said Gordon Fitzgerald, 552nd ACW Director for Requirements. "And it's not just about the flight route. It may be that a route is available, but not at the desired altitude for optimum operations.  DRAGON enables and optimizes getting AWACS to the fight and sustaining flight operations."

This first "D-1" E-3 will return to Tinker and the 552 ACW in 2017 and the Air Force expects their fleet of DRAGON enabled E-3s to be delivered by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2025.

"The DRAGON modification is the most significant avionics upgrade in E-3 history," said Col. Jay Bickley, commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing. "And will ensure we remain ready and able to support combatant commander requirements worldwide."