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The conversion: New E-3 crew concept improves efficiency

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

In March 2012, the 552nd Air Control Wing began testing much-needed upgrades to the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. The upgrade emboldened wing leadership to tackle three core issues: manning, maintenance problems of an aging fleet and the high deployment rhythm.

In 2016, current 552nd ACW Commander Col. Alain Poisson was commander of the 552nd Operations Group and tasked the group to test the potential of the new E-3 mission system by experimenting with the Air Battle Manager crew concept to alleviate the manning problems.

Maj. Jason Gabrick, an instructor in the 966th Airborne Air Control Squadron, recalls Poisson asking the group, “How could we do this differently, better, with fewer] people, a different crew construct?”

Despite early reservations of the new ABM modular concept, when combined with the wing’s outreach to a consulting group to improve proficiency in all three core issues, Gabrick said that it very likely saved the E-3 community from insolvency.

“The successful proof of concept led to a more flexible mission crew orientation that could match crews to tasks with fewer personnel, easing the manning issue,” he said. “And the new ABM qualification could establish a sound foundation because wing and group leadership listened to its instructors and evaluators.”

Fellow instructor, Maj. Gabriel Gricol, agreed.

“When they empowered us, that was great,” Gricol said. “They’ve reinforced that empowerment by not only listening, but acting on the calls to maintain training standards.”

The continuous process improvement advocated by the consulting group and enacted by the wing equally helped the E-3 community improve its efficiency in all regards. The CPI effort showed that tailoring sorties to specific training such as aerial refueling or technician training, greatly increased training and sustainment objectives instead of multitasking each sortie for every requirement.

Maintenance and crew personnel also benefitted because the wing established predictable and stable flying and maintenance times.

“The CPI was equally important because it took it a look at the way we did business and identified inefficiencies,” stated Gricol.

Improved morale, higher quality of life, a new ABM crew structure and improved aircraft maintenance turned a bleak future into hope because of bold wing and group leadership.

First Lt. Zackery Hopkins of the 964th AACS and Airman 1st Class Alexander Aguado of the 960th AACS are the last of their kind because they were the last to be trained on the old E-3 mission system. Both not only represent the transition from one paradigm to another, but will be the future leaders of it. 

Hopkins, Aguado and their generation will have more responsibility than their predecessors regarding mission employment, training and national obligations. But, because their commanders, leaders, mentors and instructors faced the risks of changing the mission crew construct, the upcoming E-3 generation will advance beyond the original visions of their forerunners.