Reflections on the E-2 Hawkeye’s 50th Anniversary

This Thursday, 21 October 2010, marks the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the first purpose built AEW aircraft, the E-2 Hawkeye (actually, it was the YW2F-1).  Designed around the radar, rather than adapting an existing airframe, the Hawkeye symbolized function over form – from the 24ft “rotodome” prominently perched over the fuselage, to the quadruple tail and twin turboprops.  It wasn’t pretty – but then, it wasn’t meant to win beauty contests.

It was meant for far more deadly competition.

This odd appearing aircraft has been an indelible portion of my life as well.  Our acquaintance formally spans over three decades, thousands of hours aloft and over five hundred carrier landings.  Although I haven’t strapped into a Hawkeye since my last flight in December 1995 (not coincidently, the last VAW-122 flight as well), I still feel like I could walk out and with little hesitation, perform a preflight and system startup, it has ingrained itself as such in me.

The plan wasn’t always to fly Hawkeyes.  Indeed, prior to Pensacola in 1978, my only other encounters were the occasional photo in a book or periodical devoted to something larger about flying and being confronted one morning by a picture of an E-2B, gear up, in a cornfield where it had crashed short of the runway at Offutt AFB out of fuel.  I still recall looking at that odd plane, with the big dome over the fuselage and wondering out loud who on earth would want to fly such a thing?  Of course, at the time, my heart was set on jets in general and the RA5C Vigilante in particular, but what did I know?

Social introductions came via VAW-122, then assigned to the Kitty Hawk’s airwing, one of two East Coast squadrons “on loan” to the West Coast while they were transitioning from the E-2B to the E-2C.  I was in VT-10 at the time, disappointed that the Vigi pipeline had just been closed and told I was too tall for F-4s, so F-14s were in the plan.  And if I continued to play my cards right in the simulators, classroom and most importantly in the air, then the VF pipeline in VT-86 awaited.  Into this plan, on a long, lazy Pensacola summer afternoon, the thrum of twin turboprops and a cold, dark interior lit by radarscopes beckoned.  Ever the flight hour hound, I of course leapt at the opportunity to go fly a fleet aircraft and see something a little different than what the back seat of a fighter might offer.  Two hours later, my world had been turned upside down.  I well recall walking from the aircraft, now sitting silently on the tarmac and thinking that this was truly an NFO’s airplane.  A week of arguing my case with the staff of VT-10, including a final pitch by the CO to stay fighters was met with assent to enter the ATDS pipeline at the conclusion of VT-10.

RVAW-120 provided the initial, up close-and-personal with this flying contradiction.  Before the days of glass cockpits and digital controls, pilot and NFO alike described the Hawkeye as having a “Star Wars” backend but a “Waldo Pepper” cockpit.  The backend, “tube” or CIC as it was variously known, held three aircrew – initially two NFOs and an enlisted Flight Tech, later changed to three NFOs.  All the controls and displays for the weapons system, centered on the radar, a great hulking one megawatt beast that was generated in the forward equipment compartment (FEC) and traveled to and fro through the waveguides just above our heads into the dome above.  In fact, well over half of that FEC was turned over to the generation, processing, cooling and troubleshooting of that radar.  And therein lay the first great trial and mystery, for if one could manage the setting of the radar processing, the positioning of the aircraft just so, wonderful results could be obtained.  Astonishingly small objects could be tracked, even in areas that “the community” maintained you couldn’t see.  It was the juxtaposition of the science of radar with the art of operations, and I learned from some of the best.

To the Fleet then I went and there the real education began.  If one word could describe the Hawkeye, it had to be “integrator.”  It was the Hawkeye that brought together the individual strengths of the rest of the airwing.  It wasn’t easy, as frankly the track record of our predecessors, the E-2A and E-2B could charitably be described as unfulfilled potential, and there was much wariness about what could be done.  But you worked and pushed and learned and worked some more.  It wasn’t uncommon to find someone from the VAW squadron stopping in the VF, VS, VA, VAQ and even occasionally HS ready rooms in preparation for a flight.  The reverse was substantially less likely.  The same held true for spending time with the carrier and when able, the AAW cruiser CIC personnel – brown shoes invading SWOdom’s deep dark inner sanctum, but there was method at work here and it centered on integration.  When aircraft from a sister service or ally joined the battle group for an exercise, it was the E-2 that brought them in, integrating them into the current flow of operations.  Much later, when jointness was being formalized under Goldwater-Nichols, we said we were joint before it was cool to be joint; such was the effect of the E-2.

The E-2 taught us to grow up fast and early – our peers and mentors in the squadron saw to that.  Moving to the center seat and attaining the Mission Commander qual as CICO was the goal.  But to get there one had to not only be an expert on the aircraft and airwing, but when required, assume the duties of composite warfare commander for the battlegroup.  This meant that on any given mission, in addition to all the regularly assigned tasks, you could end up running the air battle for the CVBG, a significant vesting of responsibility in potentially a very junior officer.  Just as the aircraft offered a platform that could integrate the disparate elements of the battle group and external forces, inside the aircraft you followed suite.  A good mission commander would be listening and talking on anywhere from 4 to seven radios and the intercom, while integrating a visual picture that included hundreds of surface and air tracks along with countless ESM tracks, all the while building a tactical picture in your mind of everything that was going on in a volume of over 3 million cubic nautical miles.  No other aircraft anywhere in the world, land- or sea-based could offer the facilities to enable that kind of situational awareness, and it took a special knack to do it right.

But the bond the Hawkeye and I forged wasn’t just in the air.  On the ground, ours was a close and at times, testy relationship.  As much evolutionary as revolutionary, the E-2 Hawkeye presented a bewildering array of cables, hydraulic lines, enormous canon plug connectors and a variety of black and gray boxes whose nondescript nomenclature belied the magic taking place in their innards.  With the overwhelming balance of my ground jobs in aviation maintenance, I had the opportunity, sometimes happily, oft times not, of really learning the ins and outs of what made the plane tick (or didn’t).  Joining and leading this expedition of discovery were a long procession of some of the smartest and most savvy maintenance men and women in all of aviation.  Just as it required both brain smarts and the touch of an artist to fly the aircraft or operate the weapons system, it took every skill from that of a EE major to the craftiest plumber to keep the aircraft up and flying.

Approaching repairs on the Hawkeye was often like questioning the Sphinx – many questions, fewer, if any answers.  Miles of wire and canon plugs with tens or hundreds of tiny, easily bent connecting pins ensured that there were few “easy” solutions.  Equipment, not thought of in the late 1950s was tightly packed into an airframe little changed from that time, ensuring flesh would be pinched, knuckles scraped and sacrificial blood shed in dark corners.  Temperamental hydraulics in remote areas would pick the most inopportune times to begin to weep – in quantities directly proportional to the distance from ready help.  Each aircraft, though nominally from a “production line” was in truth hand built and many assumed their own personalities.  Some were easy going and could always be counted on – others developed personas that only a Stephen King could love (and were christened accordingly).  As a post maintenance check NFO (aka “stunt mole”) you rapidly learned which ones to trust and which wouldn’t hesitate to bite your hand.

But it was through the “eyes” of the Hawkeye that my own view of the world grew and changed.  Through the thousands of hours there were times of extraordinary challenge and unrelenting boredom – of lives saved and fruitless search.  Through four squadron tours with the Hawkeye I’ve been at the center of world events and in the remotest, most God-forsaken reaches on this planet.  We’ve flown from the Arctic to equatorial jungles and Mid-eastern deserts.  We’ve chased Soviets, Libyans, Iranians, terrorists and smugglers.  Flight followed VIPs and directed S-3s on sinkers.  Tracked shuttle launches and joined desperate, fuel-starved fighters over a cold North Atlantic with a tanker in the nick of time.  Engaged F-16s in ACM and, hanging out of the aft ditching hatch, dropped little blue bombs on target barges.  Launched off pitching decks in a Mediterranean mistral and penetrated Olympian-sized thunderstorms off Central America.  In many respects, the person I am today is a reflection of time spent in the Hawkeye.

And so now we turn to the 50th Anniversary, noting as we do that in all likelihood the Hawkeye will continue flying well into the current century.  As I look at the latest iteration, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, I marvel at the new capabilities it brings to the Fleet and am secretly envious of those who will fly it.  And still, even years after my last flight, the sound of an E-2 entering the break quickens the pulse and mists the eye. . .

Congrats Grumman and Hawkeye on your 50th and here’s to many more years of hunting.

Article Series - Centenary of Naval Aviation (1911-2011)

  1. Flightdeck Friday: Smoke and the Battle of Midway
  2. Flightdeck Friday: RF-8 Crusaders and BLUE MOON
  3. Flightdeck Friday: Midway POV – Wade McClusky
  4. Flightdeck Friday: 23 October 1972 and The End of Linebacker I
  5. Former VFP-62 CO and DFC Recipient, CAPT William Ecker, USN-Ret Passes Away
  6. CAPT John E. “Jack” Taylor, USN-Ret.
  7. Flightdeck Friday: USS MACON Added to National Register of Historical Places
  8. Tailhook Association and Association of Naval Aviation
  9. Flightdeck Friday: Speed and Seaplanes – The Curtiss CR-3 and R3C-2
  10. Flightdeck Friday: A Family Remembers a Father, Naval Officer and Former Vigilante B/N
  11. Out of the Box Thinking and Execution 68 Years Ago: The Doolittle Raid
  12. The ENTERPRISE Petition – A Gentle Reminder
  13. USS Enterprise (CVAN/CVN-65) At Fifty
  14. A Golden Anniversary: The Hawkeye At 50
  15. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy
  16. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part II)
  17. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part III)
  18. Reflections on the E-2 Hawkeye’s 50th Anniversary
  19. An Open Letter to “The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Foundation”
  20. U.S. Naval Aviation – 100 Years
  21. Doolittle’s Raiders: Last Surviving Bomber Pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, Dies at 93
  22. More Naval Aviation Heritage Aircraft (But Still No Hawkeye)
  23. Naval Aviation Centennial: Neptune’s Atomic Trident (1950)
  24. Naval Aviation Centennial: One Astronaut, A Future Astronaut and Reaching for New Heights
  25. Flightdeck Friday Special Edition: The Space Shuttle – Thirty Years of Dreams, Sweat and Tears
  26. Flightdeck Friday – Postings from the Naval Aviation Museum
  27. Saturday Matinee: US Naval Aviation – the First 100 Years
  28. National Museum of Naval Aviation – Some Thoughts and A Call to Action
  29. Flightdeck Friday – 100 Years of Naval Aviation and the USCG
  30. Guest Post: THE U.S. NAVY’S FLEET PROBLEMS OF THE THIRTIES — A Dive Bomber Pilot’s Perspective
  31. This Date in Naval Aviaiton History: Sept 18, 1962 – Changing Designators
  32. Centennial Of Naval Aviation – The Shadow Warriors


  1. Rich

    Thank you for taking us along and helping us
    understand your friend for all these years.
    Yes, here’s to many more years of hunting
    for this fine aircraft, her systems, and
    her valiant crews!

  2. claudio

    beautiful tribute a great partner of yours.


  3. e2tweet

    Well put- and congrats to Grumman on a great, and I think, beautiful AC. Funny story from the dog days of an early 80s Med cruse, working a day launch as the Tweet troubleshooter on a very busy flight deck. For the first and only time, I was shockingly called into the ac after she had been buttoned up and taxied onto the cat (cat 1 no less). On my way in I’m thinking- O.K.- a little pressure here… Once inside, the RO- with a desperate “What the heck is this” look, was frantically pointing to his main display which was painting “rings” about every half inch along the length of the sweep. I (thankfully) instantly recognized these as “radar ranging test rings” which can only be viewed by loosening a terminating cannon plug on one of the radar boxes in the forward equipment bay, and with the main displays’ long pulse video selected and cranked. The RO was the lone back-ender to have this video turned up which only added to the “why me and not them” confusing circumstances. With time very very short, I amazed my three man audience by quickly moving backward on my hands and knees “feeling my way” along the walkway to find the right “spot” on the deck. Once “found”, I pulled out my trusty flashlight to highlight this spot, licked two fingers and painted an “X” on said spot- then stood up and with a well worn size 12 flight deck boot, “Stomped” that spot (while locking down the cannon plug with a quarter turn I’m sure no one could see) and- Viola! Fixed. It’s a Miracle. With a now completely dumbfounded/amazed back-end crew shouting questions, I gave them all a thumbs up, a quick salute and shout to have a good flight. As I closed and secured the hatch, I realized- I had just become a R.A.D.A.R. god! Ahhhh-yes….. Makes me smile still.

  4. DDon

    A good basic airplane.
    Have the rudder bushings been finally upgraded?
    The only aircraft I’ve known, that needed its rudders inspected every year (365 Day Inspection). Always was at least one set of bushings that wouldn’t cooperate.

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