Whales & Tales

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Leyinzca Bihlajama
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to shadow the crew of an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System Aircraft. During Red Flag 22-1 my colleague, Meagan Hannon, and I had the chance to experience a day in the life of a 964th Airborne Air Control Squadron member.

The advanced aerial exercise is the first of three iterations to take place this year at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. In a display of joint capabilities, Red Flag 22-1 hosted allies and partners from the United Kingdom and Australia, with 2,900 participants, and over 100 aircraft.

The 964th AACS attended with the unit’s E-3 AWACS. During the exercise, the crew showcased their ability to identify adversarial threats and mitigate through tactical resolution.

The day of our engagement marked the 50th anniversary of the first AWACS sortie. On Feb. 9, 1972, an E-3 prototype, the EC-137D, took flight out of the Boeing facility in Washington State. The historical coincidence made the experience even more meaningful.

Day of immersion:

9:15 a.m. - We arrive at the Red Flag building, making our way down the long hallways filled with memorabilia, finally reaching the room the 964th AACS crew has come to know as their office for the duration of the exercise. Already the members have settled in, and smells of coffee and McDonald’s breakfast filled the air. Aircraft Commander, Capt. Shane O’Connell, and Section Lead in Charge, Capt. Gregory Fyffe, are busy revising the details for today’s flight prior to their brief.

9:25 a.m. - The aircrew heads to the briefing room for the first conference of the day. Thirty seconds before the half-hour, 1st Lt. Bradley King begins to countdown and at exactly 9:30 a.m., the room falls silent, then rollcall begins. O’Connell and Fyffe go over safety and logistics for the day, then some members of the crew set out towards the aircraft to complete their pre-flight checks.

After the brief, the remaining members return to the room, where intelligence analysts finalize the parametrics for radar prior to lift-off. The room is filled with chatter as each section of the crew runs through their strategy for a successful mission.

10:41 a.m. – Everyone gathers for the mass brief to review the airspace, weather, rules of engagement and safety. The hallways of the building are flooded with green suiters all flowing towards the auditorium.

Again, someone countdowns to exactly 10:45 a.m., the rowdy room comes to an abrupt silence. During rollcall each group shouts a catch phrase, “smoke ‘em” calls the 964th members. Throughout the brief, I notice there is a great emphasis on safety and not taking unnecessary risks.

11:15 a.m. - We make our way down the flight line to the AWACS where the first half of the aircrew awaits. At the aircraft, Detachment Commander, Maj. Jason Bond and Director of Operations, Flight Lieutenant Simon Bracewell greet us. Bracewell gives us a tour of the aircraft, leading us to the back of the plane for a safety brief. The brief is similar to the safety instructions on a commercial airline, except for one big difference, the oxygen masks. The masks on the AWACS are not little yellow cups with clear bags at the end, rather they are over the head fully sealed, resembling a gas mask. Bracewell ensures the masks are properly fitted and we know how to correctly wear them.

12:03 p.m. – The seat belt sign comes on – the aircrew of 28 rushes to get settled into their designated seats in anticipation of take-off. The heat from the blazing Nevada sun resonates in the cabin. To distract myself I take in my surroundings. The inside of the aircraft is lined with blue carpet and window-less grey walls; computer systems separate the different sections and there is a walk-way about two feet wide running from the cockpit to the galley.

Soon after, the aircraft lights begin to flash and siren blares as the warning signals are tested. The humming from the engines can be heard as we begin to taxi. The section leads are busy running through their appropriate checklists.

O’Connell announces on the PA system “we are cleared for departure”, the engines go from a humming to a roar as we take-off.

During take-off Kuczera explains that there are nine essential roles on the aircraft that ensure mission success. Kuczera is a bit of a historian, he has flown on every AWACS tail in service except for one, referencing his notes he shares fun facts about the tail we are on.

Just like that, the fasten seatbelt light is turned off – almost immediately the sound of clicks from unfastened seatbelts travels through the cabin, the crew rotates their seats into proper position and begin working on their designated system.

At this point some members also switch out their patches, showing off their collection. It is customary for U.S. military members to trade patches during their travels as a way to cement new friendship through a token of remembrance. During a large event such as Red Flag there is a bit of competitiveness on who can collect the most. 

Capt. Tanay Mahadik, 964th air battle manager, has acquired quite the collection. I playfully joke that he reminds me of a meme about American service members being covered in patches. I notice Bracewell doesn’t take part in this tradition and ask why that is, he replied “yeah, I don’t know about that, it’s an American thing.”

When listening to the aircrew communicate it is difficult to keep up as they all go by their call-signs. This celebrated practice facilitates quick identification among the crew and can also help to confuse the enemy that may be listening in on their communications. Customs such as patch trading and call-signs, speak to the heritage and traditions upheld by the 964th AACS and the Air Force.

Lt. Col. Bryan Minatel, 964th AACS deputy commander, helps get me plugged into the communication system, allowing me to listen in on various feeds. He explains that the AWACS crew can simultaneously communicate through multiple radio channels at any given time. At the start of the flight a crew member expressed that even though the job is not physically demanding, it is mentally tolling. Watching the members strategically coordinate while juggling multiple channels, it is clear that their training is a crucial component to the mission’s success.

1:09 p.m. – The atmosphere in the cabin quickly shifts as crew members in the back of the plane smell burning fumes. Immediately the crew puts on their oxygen and we are escorted to the back of the plane to our masks.

As we make our way to the back we can hear the ‘whale’.  As air enters the cooling shaft of aircraft’s famous radome it projects a sound very similar to a singing whale.

The crew in the cockpit communicates with the cabin narrowing down the cause, O’Connell then calls for an Emergency Landing.

In the back of the plane Maj. Jacob Dykstra, 964th AACS air battle manager, is on the phone listening to O’Connell’s directions and informing the rest of the members who are disconnected from audio.

We hear a chamber opening and Capt. Shawn Storey, 964th air battle manager, explains that the pilots have put down the landing gear while airborne, burning fuel quicker in order to reach a safe landing weight.

“You feel everything in the tail of the plane”, says Storey, warning us that upon descending and landing we might feel motion sick. He prepares us for the change in cabin pressure and shares some tricks of the trade, handing us Ziploc bags and ginger candy.

Fifteen minutes until landing – The team remains focused listening into the communication lines to provide ground support upon landing.

The whale is silent as the fasten seatbelt sign lights up, and the excitement that first filled the cabin has reduced to optimism for a more engaging future flight. While many of the members were frustrated at the early descent, they all agreed on the prioritization of safety.

Listening to their conversations you get a sense they all love what they do and the AWACS, as they share stories of their favorite tail number.

2:12 p.m. – The sound of the engines shifts as the aircraft prepares to land. The back of the plane rocks like a boat on open waters during a cloudy day, when the water is alive and the current is strong but it’s not quite storming. I can see how one may become ill.

There is a gentle thump as we land. Storey says O’Connell has a gentle touch when it comes to landings.

The 964th crew returns to their hub at the Red Flag building for the debrief marking the end of the day.

Yes, ending the day with an inflight emergency landing was disheartening. However, the crew kept their spirits and optimism high for a better tomorrow, truly capturing the esprit de corps of the 552nd Air Control Wing and the United States Air Force.