Boeing E-3 Sentry (AWACS) Airborne Surveillance, Command, Control and Communications Aircraft
A critical player for the United States, NATO and a few Western allies, the Boeing E-3 Sentry continues service in the vital AWACs role.
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From 1954 into 1982, the United States military relied on the EC-121 "Warning Star" platform as its primary Airborne Early Warning (AEW) system. AEW aircraft were developed to provide battlespace command and direction for allied forces through the tracking of all presented aircraft, ground vehicles and naval assets. This sort of management proved ultra-critical in the evolving age of electronics and processing which saw an elevated reliance on all manner of scanning, tracking and detection. Aircraft like the EC-121, therefore, served as "directors" to oversee a given battlefield from lofty positions in the sky. The Warning Star series, based on Lockheed's "Constellation" line, fulfilled this requirement and was produced across 232 examples, largely remembered for their triple-fin tails and hump back fuselage spines. These aircraft served throughout the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and were popularly known by their nickname of "Connie", of course born of the original Constellation name.
Into the 1960s, the United States Air Force (USAF) was already planning for a new AEW platform with much improved battlespace capabilities and would serve as a direct successor to the EC-121 line. Turbofan jet technology now allowed for larger aircraft to fly farther and higher than previous and the Boeing 707 was formally selected as the "carrier" for a powerfully advanced radar system. Two systems were then trialled on two Boeing 707 airframes - one radar from Westinghouse and the other from competing Hughes. The Westinghouse design was officially selected and the resulting aircraft became the E-3 "Sentry". Sixty-eight E-3s were produced from 1977 into 1992. The modern E-3 is given the descriptor of "Airborne Early Warning and Control" (AEW&C) to which the common term of "AWACs" is derived.
Beyond the USAF's usage of the type, the aircraft was also sold to NATO, the British Royal Air Force (RAF), the French Air Force and Saudi Arabia. After the United States, NATO became the largest operator with eighteen airframes in its stable.
Structurally, the E-3 retains much of the appearance of the civilian-minded Boeing 707 model. It sports low-mounted, swept monoplane wings in a traditional configuration at amidships. The cockpit flight deck is at the extreme front of the tubular fuselage aft of a short nosecone assembly. The fuselage houses the mission crew and their applicable system consoles. The empennage includes a single vertical tail fin and low-mounted horizontal planes. The undercarriage is entirely retractable an consists of two four-wheeled main landing gear legs and a two-wheeled nose led. The most distinct feature of the design is the rotating radar assembly seated atop a strut support network aft of the main wing span and ahead of the tail unit. The radar plate turns at a rate of six revolutions per minute. Dimensions of the entire aircraft include a length of 152 feet, 11 inches, a wingspan of 145 feet, 9 inches and a height of 41 feet, 4 inches. Listed weights include 185,000 when empty and 347,000lbs as a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW).