TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --- The 552nd Air Control Wing here celebrated the 30th anniversary of the E-3 Sentry, also known as the Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, June 29 through July 1, with 552nd commanders and Airmen, past and present, coming from around the globe to share their stories.
"The AWACS heritage is rich with stories of being 'first to the battle' at European Liaison Force-One ... or with our Langley F-15 (Eagle) brothers for Desert Shield, or called upon by the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe to fly in the air war over Serbia," said Col. Lori J. Robinson, 552nd ACW commander, during the opening ceremony July 29. "Our heritage is rich because of each of you, the trails that you blazed, and the wars that you fought ..."
Celebratory events took place continuously throughout the weekend, and many distinguished visitors attended, including Gen. Ronald E. Keys, Air Combat Command commander; Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney J. McKinley; and Oklahoma's lieutenant governor, Jari Askins.
"When the E-3 (program) started, it was purely an additive to our ability to conduct air defense," General Keys said. "It would go out and point the fighters in the right direction. Now it can do so much more.
"The E-3 is becoming a gateway," he said. "It's not only a command and control aircraft, but also a gateway to process information and send it to the larger force. (It helps us) take advantage of the fact that we've got better pieces of information, because we have systems up there that can see things that no one else can see.
"Because of what we are doing out there, we require the ability to change dynamically and task on the fly," General Keys said. "It is absolutely critical that you have air battle management out there, and that is what the 552nd does."
Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, also took note of this historical event even though he was unable to attend.
"The E-3 Sentry is a technological marvel, envied by allies and feared by enemies," General Moseley said in a letter to Colonel Robinson and the Airmen of the 552nd. "It possesses a radar from which enemy aircraft cannot hide; sensors that detect and track enemy threat systems; and a communication system that allows the E-3 to pass the air battle picture to other aircraft and ground commanders ... electronically through data link and verbally through air battle managers."
The first E-3 Sentry arrived here on March 23, 1977, and throughout the past 30 years, it has been a crucial aspect of almost every military operation, both on the ground and in the skies. From conducting surveillance missions over Asia during the 1970s, patrolling the skies after Sept. 11, 2001, to conducting operations once again in Southwest Asia today, the E-3 and its crews support the entire spectrum of operations.
"We have no idea how many lives were saved because of the AWACS," Chief McKinley said. "There have been many times when other countries, knowing AWACS was there, wouldn't launch their aircraft. [They would say] 'No thanks, I'm going to stay on the ground.' AWACS has never been on vacation, and we have never left the global war on terrorism. These missions are not just in Southwest Asia, they are also in South America, the Philippines and countries around the world."
Because many past AWACS Airmen had been "out of the fight" for a while, wing leaders gave them the opportunity to take a look at the wing's current operations. Each squadron hosted tours and open houses to welcome past and present 552nd ACW personnel, friends and family members. Visitors also attended "re-blue" briefings about the future technologies of the E-3 aircraft and toured E-3 flight and mission simulators.
Another of the anniversary events was a memorial ceremony where Airmen honored crewmembers lost on (callsign) Yukla 27 on Sept. 22, 1995. This was the only E-3 to crash in the airframe's 30-year history.
"I knew many of the Airmen who were on the Yukla, and knowing that this wing made sure to honor them during their anniversary events is outstanding," said retired Master Sgt. Mike Joseph, a former 552nd ACW air surveillance technician instructor and evaluator from 1980 to 1998. "I think it's great that the wing has given us a chance to come together, see friends and coworkers we haven't seen in years, and get brought up to speed on what's changed since we've gone."
Sergeant Joseph's son, Joshua, is in the process of joining the Air Force himself, and wanted to see what his father had done during his time at the 552nd ACW.
"I've heard a lot of stories from my dad about everything they did here," Joshua said. "And even though I don't think I'm going to go with the AWACS, it's been really cool finding out what all those stories were about. He still won't tell me some of his stories though. Maybe when I join he'll tell me."
"Never," Sergeant Joseph replied. "Some stories I will never tell!"
For many past and present AWACS Airmen, the weekend brought back many memories and shed light on the significance of the 552nd Air Control Wing mission, past, present and future: a continually evolving command and control asset that will continue to fulfill its mission at home and during combat for decades to come.