Ground crews from Airborne Early Warning Squadron 113, based at Naval Base Ventura County, Calif., assist the pilot prior to a Dec. 4 training flight. (Mark D. Faram/Staff)
To the casual observer of carrier flight operations, the Navy’s E-2C Hawkeye aircraft may seem like the ugly ducklings of carrier air wings. But to those who’ve made careers of flying and fighting these early warning aircraft, they’re swans.
Those who fly them call them “Hummers,” a nickname derived from the distinctive sound of their turboprop engines.
Hawkeyes have been in the fleet for more than 50 years; the E-2 is the oldest airframe serving on U.S. carriers, outliving venerable aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat, which became operational in 1975 and left the fleet 30 years later. The current variant of the E-2, which makes up most of the fleet, is the “C” model, which entered operational service in 1973.
“Of the 100 years of naval aviation, the Hawkeye has been around for about half of that time,” said Capt. Todd “Cowpie” Watkins, commander of Airborne Command Control and Logistics Wing. “The core mission of the E-2 community hasn’t changed — it’s still airborne early warning and protecting the carrier — but what Hawkeyes actually do has expanded well beyond those boundaries.”
New enemies, new missions
During more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Hawkeye has been called on to do more than just its bread-and-butter early warning duties.
In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, acting on their own initiative, Hawkeye crews saw the need for airborne battlespace management and adapted their heavy sensors and communications skills to direct combat aircraft during combat operations — putting pilots in touch with ground units needing close-air support and ordnance directed onto enemy targets.
Managing airspace served a different purpose in November, as Hawkeyes assisted in disaster-relief operations in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines.
Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 115, on the aircraft carrier George Washington, “ arrived on scene to find the existing air traffic control capabilities destroyed by the typhoon,” Watkins said. “Here, they took over managing the airspace over the impacted areas, supporting command and control of that operation and keeping the air traffic control picture sorted out by manning relief helicopters and aircraft from multiple countries in the area.”
It wasn’t the first time Hawkeyes had done the humanitarian mission; they had their first taste during Operation Tomodachi after an earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated Japan in 2011.
“Our aircrews have proven time and again the flexibility of the E-2C airframe to flex and find new missions while we continue to refine our basic carrier-based mission set all the time,” Watkins said. “Innovation is part of the DNA of the carrier airborne early warning community, and I don’t see that changing.”
The new Hawkeye
But change is underway in the community, as the Navy has started a 10-year project to replace the E-2C Hawkeye aircraft with new “D” models.
“When you see them side by side, you really don’t notice much of a difference,” Watkins said. “But appearances can be deceiving, as they’re not remanufactured, older aircraft, but brand-new airframes, built from scratch.”
The aircraft sport all-new glass cockpits and have a fly-by-wire throttle control — controlling the engines electronically instead of by cables.
Internal communications are routed throughout the aircraft by fiber optics, and the combat system — operated by three naval flight officers who sit at the tactical work stations in the back of the aircraft — is tied into the front, so the pilots can monitor the tactical picture.
“The crew size hasn’t changed — we still have two pilots and three NFOs in the back,” Watkins said. “E-2 pilots have always been involved in the tactical picture as well as doing the flying — but now we’ll have the capability to turn one of the pilots into another tactical control station with the flip of a switch — adding to the overall combat capability.”
Watkins says the aircraft and its sensors are a “generational leap” over the C-variant’s systems, and the new gear is so powerful that the aircraft’s mission set will expand beyond carrier operations. They’re expected to play heavily in the combat air control world of the cruiser and destroyers, though much of that emerging picture is still being developed and is highly classified.
The East Coast squadrons will move to the D-variant first, Watkins said, because they’re flying the oldest E-2Cs. Only after all five East Coast squadrons are outfitted will those on the West Coast and in Japan begin the transition.
“It takes about nine to 10 months for a squadron to transition into the new aircraft,” said Watkins, whose wing is based out of Point Mugu, Calif. “A lot of that is bringing the maintainers up to speed as under the skin, it’s an all-new airframe with lots to learn.”
The first squadron transition is already underway: The Norfolk, Va.-based Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 125 performed its first launches and recoveries as an E-2D squadron Dec. 3 aboard the carrier Theodore Roosevelt off the East Coast.