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Valiant Shield reunites AWACS squadrons after 41 years

  • Published
  • By By Airman 1st Class Anthony Jennings
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
In 1969, Ottus Air Force Base, Mass., saw the closing of the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing, home to the E-3 Sentry. For the first time in 41 years, three squadrons, which were components of that wing, have re-united to take part in the U.S. Pacific Command exercise, Valiant Shield 2010.

More than 140 Airmen are deployed here for Valiant Shield from the 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., the 961st AACS from Kadena Air Base, Japan, and the 962nd AACS at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

"This is truly historic, we're getting back to our roots," said Lt. Col. Michael Mote, 551st Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron commander. "This is the first time we've all been together on the same runway which is why, for purposes of this exercise, we chose to fly under the same banner as the 551st."

The E-3 Sentry is an airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, aircraft with an integrated command and control battle management, surveillance, target detection, and tracking platform. It provides an accurate, real-time picture of the battle space to the Joint Air Operations Center.

A rotating radar dome, 30 feet in diameter and six feet thick, held 11 feet above the fuselage of the modified Boeing 707, contains a radar subsystem permitting surveillance from the Earth's surface up into the stratosphere, over land or water. Maintaining such a sophisticated piece of technology isn't always easy according to one radar technician.

"It can be challenging," said Senior Airman Johnathon Santana, Airborne Radar instructor. "Being part of the radar crew is sort of like being the lead singer of a band. If the singer isn't doing his job, everybody notices. If I'm not doing my job, it will affect everyone else."

AWACS not only provides situational awareness of friendly, neutral and hostile activity, command and control of an area of responsibility, and battle management of theater forces. The aircraft also gives controllers the ability to direct fighters to the location of tankers for air-refueling operations.

"One of the things I'm getting a lot of great training on during this exercise is the fuel management," said 1st Lt. Tony Nelson, Air Weapons Officer. "I've never seen so many fighters and other aircraft in the air at the same time and trying to keep track of all of them while making sure they have the fuel they need is a huge undertaking,"

The E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft is a valuable asset to the Air Force mission, but without the Airmen inside operating it, it would be just another plane with a fancy radar system.

"This aircraft has incredible sensors and equipment that was well ahead of its time when it was first fielded in the mid-70s," Lt. Col. Mote said. "But what really brings everything together and makes its capabilities truly valuable is the people. They make the mission happen."

"All those distinct air force specialty codes made up of a very diverse group of individuals from all walks of life, just like anything else in the military. It takes a special breed to do what we do and we're proud to do it for the Air Force, the country and the joint fight."