Skillman Takes 'Icelandic Odyssey' on E-3A

Published in the Westinghouse “Engineering Network”

Defense and Electronic Systems Center, Baltimore, Maryland

February, 1980


By Bill Skillman, senior advisory engineer


"Wow! Look at all those mushrooms," was my reaction as I rounded a hangar at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and about ten E-3A airplanes (Boeing 707), each with a distinctive 30-foot rotodome perched atop its fuselage, came into view.

As a large sign on the hangar proclaimed, this was the "Home of the E-3A." More of the "birds" were out on missions, and several more were based in Iceland, my next destination.

Having worked on the AWACS program for almost 17 years, I was gratified to see all those airplanes equipped with the Westinghouse radar that so many of us had struggled to bring into being via the Overland Radar Technology program, study programs, Brassboard, DT&E (development, test and evaluation), and now production programs. Along the way we had beaten out many potential radar suppliers. As usual, the finalists in the Brassboard "fly-off", in 1972, were Hughes and Westinghouse. A large, dedicated team working around the clock in Seattle (with lots of support from the Baltimore troops) had conquered many problems and many frantic last minute improvements to beat out the Black Hats who, rumor had it, were way out in front of us.

Although I had flown a number of flights both in Brassboard and the DT&E program, this one was to be different. This was an Air Force bird and the radar would be run by the blue suiters without benefit of engineers hanging over their shoulders ready to tweak things up. So I looked at this flight as an opportunity to see if the radar had survived the transition to the military environment.

Since I was still 2,800 miles from the beginning of the mission flight, I boarded an E-3A for a ferry flight to Keflavik, Iceland. After landing at Keflavik, the Hewlett-Packard rep thought he had better check out his equipment on the actual plane we were to use for the morning mission. I thought I'd tag along to get acquainted with his gear. Most of the Air Force had vanished when we discovered the heavy gear had not been transferred.

That's why I soon found myself on this dark, windy evening, hauling a bulky piece of equipment from one plane to the other. Halfway up the rickety steps, a sharp "halt" from a jauntily-bereted guard with a machine gun in his hands stopped me cold! The only movement was my mouth, as I called "Help!" until my Air Force escort showed up and reassured the guard that I was not as evil as I appeared.

Let's see, now that we have it on board, where do we plug it in? Oops! again, this bird had no 60-cycle power (house current), only the 400-cycle military power. Oh, well, we didn't want to use that stuff anyway. Fortunately the main equipment was equipped for 400 cycles, so we really lost very little capability. But what a struggle to find an Air Force approved extension cord just to plug in that equipment!

By the time we finally had things in readiness for the morning, we couldn't find any transportation, so we slogged in the cold rain to the barracks.

But all the inconvenience for a civilian at the base was forgotten the next day when the radar was turned on part way to England, and I could see that the boys in blue had the radar perking as good as ever. In fact, it perked perfectly throughout the mission, as we cruised over England observing the progress of the mission on the consoles and looking at strange signals on the HP equipment.

    Finally, the mission was over, we can go home! Another "Oops", this time it's a free tour of the base at Mildenhall, England. You guessed it, to avoid that North Atlantic swim we had to top off the tanks before heading for Iceland. (The guards seemed more friendly here, but they wouldn't let you take a snapshot of the mushroom-equipped bird!)

Well, the rest was 5,000 miles of flying, snoozing, reading, talking, etc, to get back to Baltimore in the reverse order. I came back with the distinct impression that the guys who use it like the radar, now that they have gotten it out of the teething stage. As a nameless Westinghouse engineer was once heard to say, "shoot, that's the way we designed it!" Well, yours truly used to have bad dreams about a fleet of AWACS that sat on the ground because they were always breaking down and nobody could fix them, because they were too complex.

My hat is off to the designers who put in all that fault detection, fault isolation, automatic switching, etc, so that the ultimate user is really happy with the Westinghouse equipment, and flies many missions every day. I decided that in this case we have a right to use the old motto---You can be sure, if it's Westinghouse!