Until recently, the E-2’s engines sported wicked four-blade props, which generated a hellacious racket (imagine an unmuffled Harley-Davidson running through a stack of Marshall amps). The noise (and destructive power) of the props made the E-2 a fearsome presence on the flight deck and inspired the nickname “the Hummer.” Now fitted with fuel-efficient eight-blade props that are gentler on E-2 airframes, the airplane sounds more like a giant swarm of super-sized bees. “Not only is the eight-blade propeller quieter, but it’s also a lot smoother,” says Lieutenant Jon Gathman, a VAW-116 naval flight officer. “When you came back from a four-and-a-half-hour mission with the four-blade, you used to be exhausted from all the vibration it had put on you.”
Although the fundamental airplane hasn’t changed for nearly half a century, the E-2 has gone through a long and complicated series of model changes driven by electronic upgrades, most notably to the radar. Even in the unlikely event that you miss the huge rotating radar dome, you’d recognize the E-2’s raison d’être the instant you climbed inside. The belly of the starboard fuselage is crammed with radar gear. Snaking through riveted boxes are tubes of the exotic vapor-cycle cooling system required to keep the electronic units at safe temperatures. The cooling system is so important that monitoring it is a primary flight responsibility of the radar operator, the most junior of the Hawkeye’s three naval flight officers.
Walk (hunched over) back past the radar gear and you reach the “office” of the Hawkeye, a cramped space bristling with buttons, switches, gauges, and computer screens. Here the three naval flight officers sit line astern for takeoff, then swivel their seats 90 degrees to the left to face their radar scopes and communications displays. The high-power UHF Doppler radar is able to monitor six million cubic miles and track 20,000 targets simultaneously, keeping its operators tolerably busy.
Although the pressurized cabin is a mask-free environment, the naval flight officers continue to wear their bulky flight gear and remain strapped to the heavy parachutes that are integrated into their seats. Fortunately, their workstations feature metal trays that slide out to expose keyboards and built-in trackballs. The close quarters also allow the naval flight officers to pass notes, communicate by hand signals, and, when things get crazy, even operate each other’s equipment. “We get so much information coming through our scopes and the radios that it’s easy to lose track of what the airplane itself is doing,” says Lieutenant Commander Carl Whorton, who saw action over Afghanistan.
Case in point: During the push toward Baghdad, Carmen was flying an E-2 in a night mission over Iraq when he saw a shower of sparks rush past the cockpit: an Iraqi missile. He banked violently to the left and went to full power. A naval flight officer in the back end got on the radio, supremely annoyed and wondering what the hell was going on. “When we told them that we’d gotten shot at, he didn’t believe us, and he said something like, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” says Carmen. Only after much heavy breathing and expletives undeleted was the truth accepted. Says Carmen: “Even as we were flying that night, I remembered a Churchill quote: ‘Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.’ ”
Every carrier air wing includes a four-Hawkeye squadron. Typically, an E-2 is the first airplane to launch and the last to land. For a classic airborne early-warning mission, it takes up station high above the fleet. The mission commander, known as the CICO, or combat information center officer, is the naval flight officer sitting in the middle seat. His radar scans 300-plus miles to identify threats, and he’s in radio contact with the air defense commander, usually stationed on an Aegis missile cruiser. If he gets a radar hit that isn’t squawking (sending out aircraft-identification signals from an onboard transponder), the E-2’s air control officer, who sits in the back seat, zooms in on the inbound track and radios the Hornets doing combat air patrol duty.
Because the E-2 was originally designed for seagoing missions, its radar has trouble filtering out clutter on land and objects skimming over the ground, such as cruise missiles and helicopters. To enhance the Hawkeye’s flexibility, Northrop Grumman is developing an E-2D, with an APY-9 radar system that dramatically improves clutter rejection while expanding search volume by 250 percent. Also, unlike the current antenna, which scans 360 degrees every 10 seconds, the new one can pause to lock onto targets, which will provide the radar operators with even more information to digest. To spread the workload, the new design gives the copilot a scope of his own so he can participate in the E-2’s tactical mission when he’s not helping fly the airplane.
“We’re no longer a blue-water battle-group Navy,” says Captain Randy Mahr, the E-2 program manager. “We’re now a Navy that operates much closer to land, so we’ve expanded the E-2’s mission and designed it to be supportable through the middle of the 21st century.”
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Whorton was flying as the air control officer with VAW-117, the Wallbangers, when he heard a chilling radio call from a ground controller in Afghanistan.
“Banger, I have troops in contact,” said the controller, who authenticated his identity as American by providing Whorton with the proper security codes. “Require assets immediately.”