“He was very calm,” Whorton recalls of the controller, whose name and military branch remained unknown. “But every time he keyed the radio, I could hear incoming fire.”
Whorton relayed the news to his combat information center officer. Though Hawkeye naval flight officers are unable to see targets and activity on the ground, they have a line on all the airplanes in the area: current position, assigned target, weapons, fuel status, and so on. At the moment, a pair of Hornets armed with GBU-12 laser-guided bombs were coming off a tanker and the two other F/A-18s in the division were about to refuel. After getting an okay from his combat information center officer, Whorton dispatched the fighters to provide urgently needed close air support.
After radioing orders to the Hornets, Whorton watched four friendly aircraft symbols cross his radar screen. A few minutes later, he got a call from the lead Hornet: “We’re Winchester [out of ammunition] and RTB [returning to base],” the pilot reported.
“Do you require additional assets?” Whorton asked the ground controller.
“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.”