Commander Herb Carmen is the executive officer of VAW-116, a U.S. Navy squadron that flies four E-2 Hawkeyes. But at the moment, 15 seconds from a carrier landing training exercise at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Carmen looks less like a pilot on final than a circus performer juggling swords and chainsaws—feet dancing on the rudder pedals, eyes darting between instruments and environment, left hand working the yoke while the right gooses the throttle as the airplane lurches through turbulent skies off the California coast.
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E-2s, the electronic eyes of the fleet, have been in production longer than any military airplane in U.S. history. That is the great irony of the Hawkeye. Although the airframe first flew almost 50 years ago, the E-2C plays a uniquely pivotal role in the fighting doctrine of today’s modern military. Yes, it was conceived as an airborne early-warning aircraft to keep the fleet safe while steaming in unfriendly waters. But its powerful array of radars and communications devices makes it a perfect weapon for modern network-centric warfare, and it’s turned out to be almost as useful for ground operations—and for foreign air forces—as it is for its original purpose.
“We’re like the guys who climb up on top of a hill and see what’s going on down below,” says Randy Blackmon, the commanding officer of VAW-116. “We’ve got a God’s-eye view of everything that’s happening. So as the E-2 goes, so goes the mission. We’ve seen that again and again, and not just during training. At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a lot of guys were bringing bombs back to the boat [after failing to find targets during combat sorties]. Then E-2s started getting into the party, and they started putting two and two together, hooking up people with targets.”
Carmen’s E-2C Hawkeye 2000 lands at a relatively sedate 140 mph, so the pucker factor doesn’t rise to F/A-18 levels. But unlike the Hornet, the Hawkeye isn’t equipped with digital flight controls, so it has to be flown by a pilot rather than a computer. Further complicating matters, it’s the biggest bird in the carrier air wing, with a wingspan that permits only four feet of deviation from the centerline of the carrier's flight deck. Also, to minimize the parts inventory, both of the Hawkeye’s propellers spin in the same direction, so whenever power is adjusted, the airplane yaws. And, thanks in part to the droopy four-tip tail section (a product of an aircraft carrier’s height restrictions and aerodynamic anomalies caused by a 24-foot-wide rotating radar dome that sits like a mushroom atop the fuselage), pitch is super-sensitive to throttle inputs. So every carrier landing is something of a spectacle.
With the E-2 sinking at a rate of 500 feet per minute as it approaches the simulated carrier deck (actually Point Mugu’s Runway 27), Lieutenant Mike Vogel, manning the radar scopes in the back of the airplane, warns me over the radio: “This isn’t an airliner. My advice is to clench your teeth when we land so you don’t bite your tongue.” Carrier landings don’t allow for niceties such as flaring before touchdown, so the Hawkeye slams down, successfully “trapping” an imaginary three wire. (Aircraft carriers have four arresting wires, but the three wire is the one pilots try to catch with their tailhooks.) Carmen applies full power, then eases back on the yoke, and the airplane effortlessly wings out over the Pacific for another touch-and-go.
“It’s pretty peppy for a prop plane,” says Carmen. He’s got 2,400 hours in Hawkeyes, so it’s understandable that he trumpets their performance. “I know it’s not the sexiest aircraft on the flight deck. But the guys who carry weapons and drop bombs couldn’t do what they do without us. The E-2 is like the quarterback of the fleet. The Hornets and Prowlers are the wide receivers and the running backs. They’re the ones who score the touchdowns. But if the quarterback doesn’t perform well, they don’t perform well either.”
An E-2’s pilot and copilot earn their pay, especially during night carrier landings. But the heavy lifting in a Hawkeye is done by the three naval flight officers, known colloquially as tube monkeys, who man a trio of 21-inch computer screens in the back end of the airplane. While an E-2C loiters at high altitude, they use their radar to monitor what’s going on in the entire theater and to zoom in on specific areas. But in addition, their extensive communications systems—conventional radios, satellite units, data-links, even text-messaging—allow them to stay in touch with all relevant units on land and sea, in the air, and under water. Not for nothing is the senior naval flight officer called the “mission commander”; he might well know more about the battlefield situation than anybody in the fight.
“The E-2 is in many ways the centerpiece of modern carrier aviation,” says Commander Richard Weathers. Now head of the Navy’s E-2C weapons school, Weathers was the executive officer of VAW-115 during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he and his commanding officer convinced the air wing commander to send Hawkeyes over land to coordinate ground-support and interdiction missions. “Once we were able to get close enough to the fight, our strike aircraft started coming back ‘clean wing’—without any bombs,” says Weathers. “Today, I believe, any strike group commander would consider it unthinkable to go into battle without an E-2.”
One of the greatest limitations of radar is that it operates by line of sight. The most obvious solution is to elevate the radar above the curvature of the earth. Hence the development of airborne early-warning aircraft, starting in World War II with a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber retrofitted with radar to protect Navy ships from kamikaze attacks.
The E-2 first flew in 1960, joining the Navy fleet in 1964. The Hawkeye is dwarfed by the U.S. Air Force’s Boeing E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft, which performs a similar function, albeit with a much larger crew. Because the E-2 has to fit on an aircraft carrier, the Hawkeye’s wingspan tops out at 80 feet, 7 inches. Over the years, E-2s have been fitted with several generations of T56 turboprop engines, originally built by Allison and now by Rolls-Royce. The Hawkeye 2000 is equipped with a pair of T56-A-427 engines rated at 5,100 shaft horsepower apiece.