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Block party: Tinker celebrates milestone

Maj. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, 76th Maintenance Wing commander, addresses a crowd made up of personnel from Tinker, Boeing Seattle and Boeing Oklahoma City and the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom AFB, Mass., who gathered at Tinker Nov. 18 to celebrate the official kick-off of the $2.9 billion upgrade to computer and ground systems on the Air Force’s fleet of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft. Work began on the first aircraft here Nov. 22 and is scheduled to continue through 2020. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Maj. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, 76th Maintenance Wing commander, addresses a crowd made up of personnel from Tinker, Boeing Seattle and Boeing Oklahoma City and the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom AFB, Mass., who gathered at Tinker Nov. 18 to celebrate the official kick-off of the $2.9 billion upgrade to computer and ground systems on the Air Force’s fleet of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft. Work began on the first aircraft here Nov. 22 and is scheduled to continue through 2020. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla -- It seemed like the day would never come. But it did, and officials celebrated the momentous milestone Nov. 18 in Bldg. 2136.

After roughly three years of planning, six E-3 Sentry aircraft will be the first to undergo a $2.9-billion initiative to upgrade the computer system, ground systems and infrastructure. Better known as "low-rate initial production" for the Block 40/45 modification project, actual work on the first aircraft began Nov. 22.

Standing in front of hundreds of Tinker personnel, senior leaders from Tinker; Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.; and Boeing's Oklahoma City and Seattle offices kicked off the Block 40/45 modification project. Boeing will provide parts, equipment and engineering, while Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center personnel will provide labor, planning and scheduling of the work.

"This is the big time," said Maj. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, 76th Maintenance Wing commander. "A lot of people didn't know if we could do this modification in conjunction with programmed depot maintenance. It's never been done before on this scale. Now the question is, are we up to it?"

With aircraft 82-0007, a 27-year-old E-3 Sentry and the first AWACS to undergo the modification, parked in front of the building, the crowd cheered.

Within the Block 40/45 modification project, the internal 1970s equipment will be replaced with commercial off-the-shelf Ethernet/local area network, similar to modern-day office equipment. As this is underway, mechanics will also perform routine PDM.

Low-rate initial production is a standard practice within the industry. Upon completion of the LRIP aircraft, the process will be reviewed, kinks will be sorted out and a full-rate production decision will be pursued in late 2012 to finish the remaining 25 aircraft of the fleet.

"We are very excited about what's going to come out on the other end," said Col. John Rauch, 552nd Air Control Wing commander. "Basically for us performing the current mission, everything will be much easier as many of our current manual tasks are automated making it quicker to train people on and much easier to process information to pass from that jet. Really, you are delivering us increased capability on the same airplane. For that, we're really excited."

The first aircraft is scheduled to be completed in September 2011 and the last of the six aircraft will be finished in 2014. The 552nd ACW will perform an Initial Operation Test and Evaluation from March to June 2012. The last of the remaining 25 aircraft is expected to roll off the line in 2020.