Detect and Direct
The Navy's newest Hawkeye gets closer to the fight.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
Jarod Hodges / U.S. Navy
(Page 4 of 4)
“Negative. I’m very good right now,” came the radioed reply, which was no longer competing with the sound of incoming gunfire. “Have a good day.”
“I felt really good about that,” Whorton says. “We’re not frontline guys. But it was good to know that, after all of our training, my job made a difference and we were able to help the guys who were under fire. The system worked the way it was supposed to.”
The Hawkeye, of course, wasn’t designed for close air support, but time and again during the fighting in the Gulf, ground troops advanced so rapidly that they passed beyond radio contact with the units that were supposed to coordinate close air support for them. Early on in Iraq, E-2s were pressed into a stopgap role as airborne communications relays between ground forces and the U.S. Army’s Air Support Operations Center. But because the battleground was so fluid and so many airplanes had to be re-routed so quickly, Hawkeyes were given more latitude to pair warfighters with targets.
“If the Hawkeye hadn’t been there, I think the [Air Support Operations Center] would have failed,” says Lieutenant Commander Brent Trickel, an E-2 naval flight officer who served as the Navy’s only officer in the Air Support Operations Center during the first few weeks of the war. “It would have been shut down. I don’t think you’ll find a more flexible platform than the Hawkeye.”
These days, in addition to traditional airborne early-warning duty, Hawkeyes are being asked to push their noses closer to the fight to coordinate ground attacks and close air support. Theoretically, these missions ought to be covered by the daily Air Tasking Order, which details every sortie to be flown that day. “But everything never goes exactly according to the ATO, which is why you need an E-2,” says Weathers. Targets move. Attacks are launched unexpectedly. Engines go sour. Bombs fail to explode.
For many years, the E-2 was naval aviation’s version of the pleasant girl in high- school who was everybody’s friend but never got asked to the prom. Light on sex appeal, the Hawkeye was ignored by the fighter jocks, who, as the expression goes, like to fly at 1,000 miles per hour with their hair on fire. Times have changed. The E-2 has shown what it can do in shooting wars, and as members of the Hawkeye community have risen in the naval hierarchy, the airplane’s reputation has gone up accordingly. “We go through training exercises side by side with [Hornet pilots], so they’re used to us,” says Carmen. “They know that we understand how airplanes fly—that they can’t turn on a dime or fly without fuel. So they like hearing from us. We’re like an extension of them. We just fly slower than they do.”
For now, the Navy plans to start retiring its E-2Cs in 2013, when the first of the new E-2Ds are scheduled to reach carrier squadrons. (Mexico, France, Egypt, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore also fly Hawkeyes, but so far none of them has placed an order for the E-2D.) D models will look almost identical to their predecessors, and they should carry the E-2 well into its senior years. “I’m looking forward to the E-2E,” says Northrop Grumman vice president Tom Vice. “And there are plenty of other letters in the alphabet after that.”