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Retired AEW members look forward to Diamond Anniversary Salute, May 7-9

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, OKLAHOMA - -- "Military heritage is the foundation of patriotism."

At least, that's according to retired U.S. Air Force Maj. William "Bill" Richards III, a former E-3 "Sentry" Airborne Warning and Control Systems weapons officer, tactics officer and instructor senior director, who will be one of the many veterans helping to celebrate the 552nd Air Control Wing's 60th anniversary of airborne early warning and control when the wing hosts its Diamond Anniversary Salute, May 7-9.

"Patriotism is what drives us to invest our lives in the service of our country; what moves us when we see the American flag," said Mr. Richards, 65, who joined the Air Force as an enlisted member on Sept. 3, 1970, and spent two tours at Tinker Air Force Base, before retiring with the 963rd Airborne Warning and Control Squadron in June 1994.

Mr. Richards joined the AWACS community as a member of the 963rd AWACS in July 1983. During his 10 years with the 552nd ACW, he deployed to Saudi Arabia 17 times, 13 of which were in support of Operation Elf One (European Liaison Force One) to provide "around-the-clock" airborne radar coverage, and to enhance Saudi Arabian air defenses during the dispute between Iran and Iraq.

Mr. Richards also was a member of the crew who flew the first AWACS mission during Operation Desert Shield. He flew his first mission in Operation Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991.

Mr. Richards comes from a family of military service. His father spent 31 years in the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force as a navigator, flying 32 missions in B-24s during World War II and B-29s during the Korean War.

Mr. Richards' grandfather served as an officer in the U.S. Army in World War I and the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, flying missions over North Africa and China from 1942-1944.

"I truly believe that all military units need to embrace their heritage and ensure their people have a true understanding of who and what came before them," said Mr. Richards, who began his Air Force career as a ground fuels specialist, before cross-training into air traffic control and eventually attending officer training school and air weapons control school in the early 1980s.

Joining Mr. Richards in the planning of some of the events for the anniversary gala from the retired airborne early warning and control community is retired Col. Wylie Koiner, 71, a former 552nd ACW commander from July 16, 1988 to May 17, 1990. He also is a command pilot with more than 5,300 flying hours in the EC-121, C-130, T-29, WC-135, T-39 and E-3 aircraft.

Those two AEW veterans will also be joined by retired Maj. John Anderson, 71, who joined the service on Feb. 3, 1967 and spent time serving as a weapons controller, senior director and mission crew commander, before retiring as an instructor mission crew commander with the 966th Airborne Warning and Control Training Squadron in April 1988.

From ground to air, propellers to jets and analog to digital, both Mr. Koiner and Mr. Anderson spent time in Southeast Asia and were around when the Air Force made the transition from the EC-121 "Connie" to the E-3 AWACS.

The biggest difference in the two aircraft, they say, is in the technology.

"The EC-121 was equipped with basic raw radar equipment," Koiner said. "The E-3 receives processed radar data for use by the mission crew. The differences are night and day. The E-3 is light years ahead of where were."

Mr. Koiner said on the Connie, the aircraft tracks were plotted manually on a Plexiglas board using a grease pencil. The biggest difference, he said, was the crew would receive their information manually.

"The radar would give you the track, you'd plot it on the board and relay it to the weapons officer," Mr. Koiner said. "The E-3s are based on an IBM 360, whereas, with the Connie's raw radar, we would fly College Eye and Big Eye missions in Vietnam by flying low and looking up because of the ground clutter. It's just the opposite with the E-3."

Both Mr. Koiner and Mr. Anderson agree that the advances on the E-3 are "light years" ahead the systems they started out on.

The three veterans said they are looking forward to the Diamond Anniversary Salute to reconnect with others from the AEW community. They said they've attended other reunions and that it's important to remember where they came from and celebrate the past.

"The 552nd has a rich history of involvement in some of the most significant military operations in the past 60 years," Mr. Koiner said. "I believe that these operations were successful due to the high caliber of personnel flying and supporting the EC-121 and E-3 aircraft.
"The Airmen may dress differently and have extraordinary technical skills today, but the same commitment to airborne command and control is still there," he added.

"This 60th anniversary celebration gives us an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of the men and women who contributed so much to the successes of the 552nd Air Control Wing."

Mr. Anderson said the AEW community really started trying to connect with one another after the crash of Yukla 27 on Sept. 22, 1995. The E-3 aircraft was assigned to the 962nd AACS out of Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 24 souls onboard.

He said he's looking forward to the commemoration, adding, "We retirees and former aircrew and support personnel from past generations of older airborne radar systems can step up and exchange thoughts with current active duty personnel that will illustrate more similarities than differences between our age groups."

The Diamond Anniversary Salute kicks off on May 7 with a reception to welcome guests, with Gen. Lori Robinson, Pacific Air Forces commander, providing opening remarks.

The following day will feature a golf tournament, 5K color run, simulator and unit tours, an aircraft static display, a wing commander's hangar call, and a legends mixer hosted by wing veterans.

The final day begins with Del City's dedication of the remaining E-3 replicas on Sooner Road, culminating with a black-tie gala at the Oklahoma City Petroleum Club, featuring U.S. Strategic Command Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. James Kowalski as the keynote speaker.

For more information, visit www.aewa.org, or call the event's project officer, Maj. Sammi Bonney, at 734-5916.