965th AACS flies first mission sortie with converted crew positions

  • Published
  • By Ron Mullan
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron recently flew its first-ever mission sortie with newly converted crew positions.

The Feb. 24, 2021, event was a flight five years in the making.

According to Lt. Col. Terrance Allen, 965th AACS commander, the 552nd Air Control Wing had been studying converting crew positions on the E-3 Sentry aircraft to go along with the Block 40/45 system upgrades.  

“The mission system was upgraded more than eight years ago, and this is the next iteration of change,” said Allen.  “This allows us to maximize the capabilities of the Airborne Warning and Control System platform. [Col. Alain Poisson, 552nd ACW commander] was a driving force and his visionary leadership ensured we moved out as a wing to tackle this “wicked” problem, 14 months ago.”

The aircraft and crew modernization initiatives focused on three areas: upgrading flight deck capabilities, converting three technician positions into two and consolidating five legacy crew positions into the new Air Battle Manager crew construct.

For the Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation, or DRAGON for short, the conversion process resulted in the elimination of the navigator position leaving three positions on the flight deck: pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.

The E-3G GTX-T conversion called for combining three positions -- computer data system technician, communication technician and communication system operator -- into two positions, airborne radio operator and airborne data system technician.

The last area of conversion, E-3G GTX, involved combining the airborne weapons officer, senior director, electronic combat officer, airborne systems operator and mission crew commander into air battle managers. These positions are now certified as section leads when they are experienced. The GTX conversion also took senior surveillance and airborne system technicians and combined them into mission system officers.

“To become a qualified MSO, former air surveillance technicians and senior surveillance technicians have to be trained in baseline Active Sensor Operations, Passive Sensor Operations, and Tactical Fluid Control Academics,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Palmer, 960th AACS.

In addition, Palmer said the other functions of an MSO include voice tell operations, electronic attack/protect procedures and AWACS monitor duties are some examples that all members were previously instructed/evaluated to per the AST/SST syllabus.

There’s an old Air Force adage that states “flexibility is the key to air power.” Allen says with the conversions, crews gain significant flexibility.

“Prior to the conversion, we had to fly with all legacy positions for most sortie profiles, and if we needed additional positions, we added them,” he said.  “Now, we can adjust the mission crew to the demands of the mission. If it is surveillance heavy, we increase our surveillance section and fly with less ABMs.  If it is control heavy, we increase our ABMs and then tailor them to the type of control mission.”

Another advantage is getting time back due to changes in required training. Allen said it previously typically took an ABM four upgrades after initial qualification to create a Mission Crew Commander.

“These upgrades could take up to two years of additional training time,” he said. “By converting, we reduce the amount of time a member is in upgrade, meaning we increase our readiness capability and are ready to Fight Tonight.”

When asked how the aircrews feel about the conversions, Palmer said there is a lot of growing pains through the conversion.

“The fear of not being fully confident in your job seems to be the most common concern for individuals during the conversion training,” he said.

Master Sgt. Robert Buckner, 552nd Operational Support Squadron and GTX-T lead, agreed, saying the conversion will affect every technician in the wing, somewhere around 230 members, to include every flying squadron in the Operations Group, the training squadrons in the Training Group, our Reserve component, and both Pacific Air Force squadrons in Kadena Air Base, Japan and Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

“The sentiment is a mixed bag, from against it, to not understanding why, to being excited about it,” said Buckner.

As to the overall benefits converting crew positions brings to the fight, Buckner went on to say that “As our mission systems become more advanced, the combination of these technicians enables us to deliver a better user experience to the mission crew by consolidating tasks and responsibilities to a smaller group of people.”