The first NATO Boeing E-3 AWACS to be retired set off for its final flight on Tuesday 23 June. The aircraft took off from Geilenkirchen airbase, its home for over 30 years, and headed for Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Once there, the aircraft will be placed in storage with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, better known as AMARG.
The final flight involved a final air-to-air refuelling off the coast of the US state of New England. At AMARG, re-usable parts worth roughly 35 million EUR are removed from the aircraft. The E-3 will then remain in storage for three years, after which it is likely to be scrapped. See the final landing at Davis Monthan here.
The aircraft selected to retire (tail number LX-N90449) was scheduled for a 15 million EUR Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) inspection mid-July 2015. Instead, the decision was made to retire the AWACS.
During its operational NATO career the airframe gathered well over 22,000 flight hours, operating out of 21 different countries. It flew its very final operational mission on 13 May 2015.
The E-3 is one of the few NATO AWACS aircraft not to receive a cockpit upgrade by Boeing. The upgrade involves a part glass cockpit, but is limited to 14 aircraft. With the departure of LX-N90449, a total of 16 AWACS aircraft are left at Geilenkirchen.
NATO’s E-3A Component at Geilenkirchen airbase in Germany retired its first Boeing E-3A Sentry this week, a spokesperon confirmed on 15 May. The aircraft, registered LX-N90449, was taken on its final mission on Wednesday 13 May and welcomed with a water salute from the fire brigade as it returned to Geilenkirchen for the last time. Read here for on inside report from Geilenkirchen.
The retired aircraft served NATO for well over 30 years, being delivered in the early 80s. Over the next few weeks, sensitive and re-usable equipment is taken out, after which the aircraft will be flown to desert storage in Tucson, Arizona, on 23 June. There, the equipment that was needed for the ferry flight, is also taken out of LX-N90449. The Sentry will then rest among hundreds and hundreds of other retired military aircraft at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, better known as AMARG.
The retirement leaves 16 E-3As in operation at Geilenkirchen. Out of those, 14 are to be updated with a part-glass cockpit. The first aircraft is currently undergoing tests in the US, with the first E-3A Component pilot having flown the aircraft on 29 April. The entire modification program is set to be done in 2018.
“First flight Boeing KC-46 delayed until summer,” aviation news headlines read recently. Over Germany, it’s of no concern to the three crew members of a 55 year old Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, belonging to the 174th Air Refuelling Squadron of the Iowa Air National Guard. Why? Because theirs is such a nice aircraft to fly, thanks especially to the four CFM-56 turbofan engines that sort of define the ‘R’ version of the KC-135. “These engines make it climb like a rocket,” says Major Joe Bousqet. “On the other hand, it’s a stable aircraft, which is perfect for our task: refuelling other aircraft.” We’ll have to wait until Summer to know if the KC-46 is capable of doing the same.
‘Climb like a rocket.’ The words ring in our ears as we roll down runway 27 at Geilenkirchen Airbase at five in the afternoon, with 105,000 pounds of jet fuel in our tanks. And indeed as soon as the KC-135 – normally based at Colonel Bud Day Field, Sioux City – rotates, Geilenkirchen vanishes beneath us at an impressive rate. A long left turn brings us to a north easterly heading towards Northern Germany, where we will fly a race track pattern for several hours.
It’s business as usual for Bousqet and his crew. They have been at Geilenkirchen for a week now and will remain there for another, supporting the local AWACS aircraft. They know their KC-135 is in high demand, not only here over Germany, but also in current operations anywhere. “Yeah, we get around,” says Bousqet, who in civilian life flies McDonnell Douglas MD-80 airliners in the US. But now, he’s on the lookout for our customer, an E-3 AWACS that’s supposed to fly somewhere in front of us.
In the back, boom operator Staff Sgt. Mike Perez has taken his position at the boom operator’s station. “Most of this stuff is as old as the airplane itself, but it works,” he says while demonstrating the two joysticks that operate the boom that transfers the fuel to the customer aircraft, which, incidentally, glides into view beneath us, still 1,000 feet lower. The grey-white fuselage of the NATO AWACS is as easily recognizable as the large black radome over it. After we make radio contact, the E-3A approaches cautiously until only the cockpit and front section fills the glass screen that provides our boom operator which such a unique view of the world. It’s a great scene, especially with the setting sun later on.
With a calm voice, Perez guides the E-3’s pilot to where he should be, and finally moves the fuel nozzle at the end of the refuelling boom to where that should be: in the E-3’s fuel receptacle on top of the forward fuselage.
“Contact,” Perez tells the E-3 pilot. The fuel begins to flow and it marks the first of 17 more hook ups like this, although on most occasions there’s no fuel transferred. The E-3 pilots just practice staying in position ‘on the boom’, guided by Perez’s reassuring voice.
Meanwhile in the KC-135R’s cockpit, the two pilots monitor their instruments and the race track pattern on their screens. The Stratotanker’s office has been upgraded countless times, and now features partly ‘glass’ instruments. “That’s great to work with, but there’s still plenty of dials and gauges,” says co-pilot Lt. Caleb Barber, pointing to the dials in the middle of the console that show what the four CFM-56’s are up to. “Those haven’t changed much.”
Nevertheless, the KC-135 has seen many variants over the years. Boeing built no less than 732 KC-135s in Renton in Washington; the very first KC-135 first took flight on 31 August 1956. A lot of them have been retired already, but the with 414 Stratotankers still in service the most current KC-135Rs will be the mainstay of the US Air Force’s and Air National Guard’s tanker capability for years to come, until it’s successor – the KC-46A – is mission ready in numbers.
To be truthful, the KC-46 did fly late 2014, but without any air-refuelling equipment. Boeing is now installing it in the aircraft, and it won’t look and work like anything at all aboard the KC-135. “It gets a bit uncomfortable, lying here for hours at a time,” says Perez in the back of the KC-135 over Germany.
The boom operator has just chalked up the 16th hook up for that night. Evening has fallen and the E-3 is only faintly visible beneath us, just as we overfly the city of Bremershaven along the German coast. The receptacle is clearly lit however and in darkness, two more hook ups take place. In the cockpit, Bousqet and Barber prepare for the return to Geilenkirchen.
Meanwhile in the States, preparations for the KC-46’s first fully equipped flight are being made, but delays in the program and all the turmoil that got the Boeing aircraft finally chosen over the Airbus KC-30 have given the KC-46 a bad start. The 2017 deadline of entry-into-service will quickly not be met. Nevertheless, the US intends to buy a total of 179 KC-46s, named Pegasus.
Back in European skies it’s dark with a bit of low cloud as our KC-135R is heading home, lined up for the Runway 27 at ILS approach to Geilenkirchen. At 400 feet, the Stratotanker breaks out of the clouds and the runway lights show themselves. As the wheels touch down there’s 32,000 pounds of fuel remaining. We burned 28,000 pounds of fuel ourselves and we gave 45,000 pounds away to a happy customer. It’s a scenario repeated countless times by the Stratotanker, who’s legendary name will keep ringing in the ears of KC-46 Pegasus crews for a long time to come.
It’s springtime, and judging by the busy flightline at Geilenkirchen airbase in Germany, the E-3A AWACS aircraft of NATO’s E-3A Component, it’s nesting time. But looks are deceiving, as these birds leave the nest every day. They keep an eye out over NATO territory on the East borders of Europe, take part in exercises such as the latest Red Flag in the US, or practice air-to-air refuelling in European skies. The multinational crews see their numbers reduced nevertheless. And while the aircraft are modified, their numbers also become smaller. By mid 2015, the first aircraft (tail number LX-N90449) retires into storage. However, the sign of the times is that the AWACS is needed more than ever.
While Geilenkirchen (nicknamed ‘Frisbee’) is their nest, the 17 Boeing E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft saw many places over the years. Exercises are a regular thing, but operations over Afghanistan were ‘the real deal’ up to last year. Operating from Mazar-e-Sharif for over three years, NATO crews flew over 1,240 missions and over 12,240 flying hours over Afghanistan, providing air surveillance and supporting aircraft involved in air operations such as close air support, battlefield air interdiction, combat search and rescue, reconnaissance and tactical air transport.
Interesting Now, the mission involves an old acquaintance towards the east of Europe, where Russia has taken an eye for the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. “Oh, we see a lot of interesting stuff,” says E-3A tactical director Major Rob van Leeuwen when asked about the missions that continue along NATO’s eastern flank daily. “We have some powerful radar equipment in that 9 meter diameter frisbee on top of the aircraft, and when we’re over Romania we cover a large part of NATO’s Eastern approaches. Getting a clear view of what is happening over Donetsk and Luhansk in the Eastern part of Ukraine is stretching it a bit however. That area is over 500 miles away, and that’s beyond our range.”
Air and sea
Still, the crews have been providing a valuable picture for NATO and, for instance, the Air Policing Mission over the Baltic states in particular. Not only airborne movements are picked up, as the AWACS’s radar equipment is also capable of picking up movements at sea. Sensitive sensors on both sides of the fuselage scan for radar and radio signals. The missions are flown over Poland and Romania, both NATO members. Van Leeuwen: “It illustrates another change that happened within the E-3A Component over the last few years; personnel from new NATO members found their way to Geilenkirchen. The shared tactical knowledge gathered here is astonishing. It’s my job to get the best out of them.”
The daily flying schedule at Geilenkirchen involves a fair bit of air-to-air refuelling (AAR), with the help of US Air National Guard KC-135R tanker crews. Today on 18 March, an E-3A with call sign ‘Nato 04’ throttles up it four old skool Pratt & Whitney TF33-turbofans and heads off to northern Germany for a rendezvouz with ‘Esso 76’, a KC-135R flown by a crew from the 185th Air Refueling Wing from Sioux City, Iowa. Airborne refuelling allows the E-3A to stay up for hours at a time and less movements at Geilenkirchen for refuelling. That’s good news to the people living around the airbase, which is located right next to the German-Dutch border.
Van Leeuwen: “It’s true that the E-3A’s old engines aren’t exactly quiet. We export a lot of noise by also operating from Ørland in Norway, Trapani in Italy, Aktion in Greece and Konya in Turkey, but also by using AAR.” Replacing the E-3As engines is not on the cards, however. It not only involves new engines but also reinforcement of the wings, and is therefore deemed too expensive. All E-3As are well over 30 years old, but remain in excellent condition.
Budget does allow for modernizing the cockpits of 14 NATO E-3s to part glass cockpits. Boeing recently reported a successful first flight for the first modified aircraft, with further tests scheduled. The first modified aircraft should be in service by January 2016. The glass cockpit update takes away the need for a navigator, reducing the E-3 flight crew from 4 to 3. The update doesn’t affect the mission crew – usually 15 or so operators – in the main part of the aircraft. The two aircraft that are not updated are scheduled for retirement, LX-N90449 being the first to fly to AMARG in Arizona by June this year. Hours on the clock: roughly 19,000.
Reductions however do effect the E-3 Component as a whole. Today, 16 NATO nations provide personnel to the component. Canada in 2014 ended its commitment. With Royal Canadian Air Fore (RCAF) CF-188 Hornets now stationed in Germany as a response to both Russia’s behaviour and the threat the Islamic State (IS) poses, it justifies the question whether the Canadians might regret this decision. NATO now also directs more effort into a joint Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system that should be in operation in Sigonella, Italy, within the next two years. All in all, it means the number of positions at Geilenkirchen will fall down from 2,000 to 1,500.
With current international turmoil, that’s quite a toll to take. All the better then, that crews remain motivated and grab every training opportunity they get. As evening falls over Geilenkirchen, ‘Nato 04’ and ‘Esso 76’ are still engaged in air-to-air refuelling. Aboard the AWACS, pilots take their turn in joining up with the KC-135R tanker, with a total of 15 ‘dry’ hook ups made, plus three ‘wet’ hook ups during which a total of 45,000 pounds of fuel is transferred from the tanker to the AWACS. At 20:30 hours local time, both the E-3 and the KC-135 return to Geilenkirchen, ending the day’s flying.
During the sortie, the frisbee on top remained ‘cold’. For the E-3A Component, there are plenty of training opportunities where the radar is switched to ‘hot’. Exercises such as Frisian Flag, the Tiger Meet and Arctic Challenge later this year provide valuable training hours. But the current missions watching the airspace towards the East reflect the true value of the E-3A. In 2014, a record of 400 NATO Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) launches were carried out in response of Russian aircraft snooping around. The Russians don’t hesitate to turn off their identification equipment, so they don’t show up on civilian radar screens, endangering air traffic. Van Leeuwen: “That’s indeed what is happening. But we’re the ones that always do see them.” There’s no escaping the eye in the sky that calls Geilenkirchen home.
What is a better welcome for an aircrew than a fresh, brand new runway at their homebase? It’s exactly what awaited the crew of a NATO E-3A Component Boeing AWACS crew as they returned to their base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, after their unit’s final tour at Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.
The men and women of the NATO E-3A Component flew 1,240 missions and 12,240 flying hours over Afghanistan over the last three years, providing air surveillance, tactical battle management functions such as support and control of friendly aircraft involved in offensive and defensive counter air operations, close air support, battlefield air interdiction, combat search and rescue, reconnaissance, and tactical air transport.
NATO’s AWACS aircraft are now no longer needed over Afghanistan, as the new Resolute Support Mission that stands-up on 1 January 2015 will focus on training and advisory tasks. Air traffic control for military aircraft over Afghan airspace will be managed by the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) in Al Udeid, Qatar, coordinated with the responsible civilian air traffic authorities.
As said, the final E-3A Sentry returning from Afghanistan, touched on Geilenkirchen’s brand new runway. The old one dated from the eighties. The 3,048 metre (1.9 mile) runway top layer was removed and replaced with 125,000 tons of asphalt and 3.7 miles (6 kilometres) of drainage. This huge task was completed in an astonishing eleven days.