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The Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye: A 60-year-old concept and an evolving mission

The "FOD-walkout" -- a daily check for foreign objects and debris on the flight line -- is a daily tradition for the officers and sailors of the Navy's "Bluetails" squadron.

DAVE RESS/THE DAILY PRESS

By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: October 22, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Bluetails, from commander to newest sailor, start their days the traditional way: a “FOD walkout," picking up any foreign objects or debris in the flight line.

The squadron, formally VAW121, flies, crews and maintains one of the oldest concepts of the Navy’s carrier fleet, the E-2 “Hawkeye” surveillance plane. But their “Deltas” are the fourth version of the basic idea — “and there’s just a ton of new technology crammed inside,” as Petty Officer 3rd Class Steve Eklund puts it.

His job is to look after the radar, secure communications and other electronics inside the E-2D and the saucer-shaped radar dome over the main fuselage.

“It looks awkward ... but the E-2 flies the same whether it’s on or off," he said. The radar dome shape provides enough lift to offset the effect of its weight, he added.

Like the FOD walkout, there’s plenty of tradition for the Bluetails — they fly the heaviest planes to take off or land on an aircraft carrier, and they’re still the first to launch, last to recover.

But there’s plenty of changes since E-2s first took to the air, 60 years ago from Wednesday.

“There’s always something new to find,” said Petty Officer 3rd class Anyssa Medina, when she delves into one of the E-2D two turbo-prop engines.

The Bluetails are about to start training for in-flight refueling, making the already long missions that an E-2D’s two pilots and three Navy Flight Officers fly even longer.

Their mission is to watch for threats and to operate as an airborne command and control center for fighter pilots, said squadron C.O. Cmdr. Neil Fletcher.

“We can look at millions of cubic miles,” he said.

Refueling means E-2Ds can stay in the air for 8, 9 or 10 hours instead of the current 4 to 5, “essentially getting our electronic eye airborne through the night,” said Rear Adm. John Meier, commander Naval Air Force Atlantic.

The Bluetails' neighbors at Naval Station Norfolk, the Seahawks, were the first to perform an aerial refueling this summer. Both the Bluetails and the Seahawks have already made the transition from the somewhat older E-2C to the Deltas. A bit more than half the Navy’s E-2 squadrons have made that shift.

Helping out after the extended missions aerial refueling allows, the new precision landing mode adopted from the Navy’s F-35 fighters means that when an E-2D comes back home to a carrier, a pilot’s “heart rate is a lot lower,” Meier said.

In addition to aerial refueling, and the new landing mode. the E-2D brings much of the information the Navy Flight Officers monitor as they navigate, manage air traffic and direct combat operations directly into the cockpit for the pilot to see, he added.

“What makes a carrier’s air wing so relevant is the fact that it brings its own airborne early warning, it brings its own airborne electronic attack,” Meier said.

“The guy in the right seat becomes the fourth operator,” said Capt. Michael France, commodore of the Airborne Command & Control and Logistics wing.

“It greatly enhances capability,” he added.

And though it means learning some new tasks for pilots like Fletcher, he said that’s kind of par for the course for the Bluetails.

That’s what they did during a record long, 10-month round-the-world deployment with USS Abraham Lincoln, which they returned from earlier this year, after all.

“I’m very proud of them,” he said.

dress@dailypress.com

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In a 2014 photo, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye assigned to the Bluetails of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 121 launches from Naval Station Norfolk during its inaugural test with the squadron.
SHANE A. JACKSON/U.S. NAVY