A flight on the E3 AWACS


Many things in life start by meeting the right person at the right place at the right time. And that’s basically how I got the flight in the E3. It was during the TLP exercise at Karup AB, March 2006. I met an old friend, a mission planner from 727 Squadron, who was stationed at Karup during the exercise, and he mentioned that if I was interested in a ride, he knew who to talk to. So I said “yes please”, of course!


It was going to be a night mission, with take off time around 1830. So at 1600 I showed up and we got the formalities in place and I was lucky enough to present during the briefing. The flight path was simply a series of holding patterns West of the Northern most part of Denmark, the tip of Skagen. From there, the fighter allocators and controllers could ‘run the show’ by helping the fighter pilots find their targets.

There were 3 passengers on the AWACS that day, myself included. One of us would have the opportunity to sit in the cockpit during take-off, and another one during landing and the ‘unlucky’ one would have to sit in the back as long as the ‘Fasten seat belt sign’ was on. Guess who drew the short straw...


The weather was terrible and I was sure that the flight was going to get cancelled the same way as the previous evening, where we had similar conditions. Anyway, we stepped out to the aircraft, were given a safety briefing and were shown to our places. As passenger you sit at the very back of the aircraft, just at the tail section, facing backwards! It’s a strange feeling to sit backwards and I was curious to find out what the take off was going to feel like. Before engine start up, it’s actually much noiser, as the aircraft has an internal cooling system for the radar systems, which is rather loud. After engine start-up, the colling system is shut off and it runs solely on the engine generators from that point.

So we taxied out and lined up on the runway. The co-pilot called up on the intercom and said: “We’ve got take-off clearance, have a nice flight” with a nice Italian accent. I was surprised at the way they perform take off in the jet. I had expected a large-civil-jet-kind-of-take-off. But no! The engines were spooled up to full power on the brakes. The noise was ear-deafening! I had never heard anything so loud in my life. At brake release, it felt as if the aircraft was kicked in the back. Initial acceleration was surprizingly rapid. Climb out was a bit bumpy as we flew through the layers of clouds and we levelled off at 29,000 feet.


I headed straight to the cockpit in order to take a few pictures before darkness. The cockpit is a rather crowded place in the E3. Crew in there consists of a Pilot, Co-pilot, Flight engineer and a Navigator...and with a passenger in the jump-seat it adds up to 5 people. I took a few pictures and had a good talk with the crew. The pilot was Canadian, so he soon found out that we had a few things in common, as I was doing the pilot training and would go to Canada in about 2-3 years time. He had been in Moose-Jaw himself and had quite a few positive things to say about it. The holding patterns that were being flown were performed at 7 degrees of bank in order not to interfere with the radar picture.


As it got dark, the fighters started getting airborne and taking their positions for the night’s mission. So I moved back to where all the radar operators and fighter allocators sit, and plugged my head-set to their system, so that I could hear the transmissions while following the progress on the radar screens. It was exciting and it’s amazing how much information they can milk out of the fighters from the ‘eye in the sky.’ As the battle raged, some pilots got ‘shot down’ and either returned to base or returned back to the initial point in order to get ‘reborn’ and rejoin the battle. It’s amazing how they can make it work in the AWACS, considering that the crew is so international. The crew consisted of Canadians, Americans, Greeks, Danes, Italians, Norwegians and Gremans. Sometimes there are other nationalities too, all from NATO countries of course. You could also hear many different accents coming from the fighter cockpits. The French guys flying Mirage 2000’s were very distinct, especially with their callsign being ‘Ricard.’


After the mission we headed back home, and the descent was rather steep. One should not expect a commercial kind of descent where the passengers come first, just because the E3 is an old Boeing 707. Sitting at the back of the aircraft during cruise or descent is actually a rather bumpy ride due to the turbulence created by the radar dish on top of the fuselage.


At landing we had a hard, gusty crosswind and touch down was actually quite hard. It was the end of an almost 5-hour flight. We taxied in and parked at the apron. I said thanks to the crew and especially the pilots and headed to my quarters at the base. The best thing about the whole experience was probably that 15 minutes after landing, I was in bed and ready to sleep. What a great flight!



Text and pictures by GEA, March 2006.