E-2D Hawkeye’s First Visit to Red Flag 12-3


The E-2D Hawkeye is the latest version of the Navy’s premier Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft that first flew in 1961. The Hawkeye is the latest US Navy AEW aircraft that’s genesis started in World War II. In 1942, the United States Navy started exploring airborne radar relays in a program called “Project Cadillac.” In 1945, modified TBM Avengers were ready to bring AEW to the Pacific theater. Unfortunately, the war ended before these AEW modified Avengers could see action.

Between the Avenger and the Hawkeye, several different aircraft types took on the AEW role for the fleet. After the legendary Avenger, the equally iconic Skyraider assumed AEW responsibilities for the fleet until 1960.  In 1960, the E-1B Tracer, an AEW modified version of the S-1 Tracker, began defending the fleet. The Tracer was the first AEW aircraft to have a top fuselage mounted radome. Previous AEW aircraft, had smaller belly mounted radomes. With the E-2 Hawkeye already in production and set to make it’s fleet debut in the mid-1960’s, the Tracer was only a temporary AEW platform until the Hawkeye came online. The E-1Bs were stricken from US Navy inventory in 1977.

Since the E-2’s debut in the mid-1960’s, the Hawkeye and subsequent E-2 variants has been the “eyes of the fleet” for almost 50 years. The Hawkeye is the biggest navy aircraft to land on a carrier. With an 80-foot wingspan, the E-2 comes aboard with only several feet to spare from wingtip to aircraft parked on the flight deck. Twin turboprop engines give the Hawkeye a 200 nautical mile radius with a five-hour “on-station” duration. All variants of the Hawkeye, including the E-2D, have a crew of five (pilot, co-pilot, and three Naval Flight Officers operating various controls in the aft portion of the aircraft).

The Hawkeye has been the “eyes of the fleet” in Airborne Early Warning for almost a half of a century. There have been several versions of the E-2 (A, B, C, and Hawkeye 2000 models) before the latest Hawkeye variant began pre-fleet introduction testing. Before the E-2D contract was awarded, other platforms ranging from the Lockeed S-3, the Grumman EA-6B, and a land based type aircraft were considered. Northrop Grumman was ultimately awarded the contract for the E-2D Hawkeye.  Even at 40 plus years old, the Hawkeye continued to be ideally suited for the AEW role due to it’s long endurance, slow over land ground speed for the radar, and it was an organic asset to the carrier group.

The newest variant of Grumman’s Hawkeye – the E-2D taxies back to the Nellis AFB ramp.

The four E-2D Hawkeyes participating in Red Flag are from Air Test and Evaluation One (VX-1), Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.  The “D” model Hawkeye is now in the operational testing phase and came to Red Flag to, among other things, test its new generation, more power radar. During a period between missions, I spoke with the E-2D Hawkeye’s Operational Test Director – Lieutenant Commander Greg “Barky” Harkins. It is Lieutenant Commander Harkins job as the Operational Test Director to test the effectiveness and suitability of the E-2D and get a product that the fleet can use. It is expected that the first E-2D Hawkeye squadron will be deployed to the fleet in 2015. E-2Ds will be built into the 2020s and will be flying well past the year 2050.

I asked Lieutenant Commander Harkins how he became involved with the latest version of the Hummer. “The short version is – I was in the right place at the right time! Harkins enlisted in the Navy in 1992 as a Nuclear Machinists Mate. He spent two years in this assignment before moving on to ROTC. I asked Harkins if this was rare, that an enlisted submariner would change jobs and come to the flying Navy. “It’s not as uncommon as you might think. We have quite a few sub guys that are now flying Hawkeyes,” said Harkins.

It was during flight training in Pensacola Florida that Harkins decided on Hawkeyes. As Harkins said, “I remember a member of the E-2 community coming to speak to us. He told us that as a junior officer, in the back of the Hawkeye, the role you play is huge. Whether it’s directing commander’s intent and/or passing situational awareness to the strike group.” After the E-2 officers talk, Harkins was hooked on the Hawkeye. Commissioned in 2000, Harkins spent time in various squadrons, including VAW-120 and VAW-123 as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO). After being in the fleet five to six years, Harkins was asked to join VX-1 and “stand up” the E-2D. This involved getting all the administrative and paperwork aspects up and running while the actual airframes were still being built in St. Augustine, Florida. After completing a tour with VX-1, Harkins was selected to Test Pilot School and after graduating was assigned to VX-20 and later returned to VX-1. Lieutenant Commander Harkins has over a total of 1,300 Hawkeye flight hours, of which 500 hours are in the E-2D. He has the unique experience to have been with the E-2D through its design phase, both developmental and operational test phases, and “D” model milestones, such as being on board for the first carrier landing.

I asked Lieutenant Commander Harkins to tell me about the improvements the E-2D Hawkeyewill bring to the fleet. “The E-2D has upgraded avionics, a glass cockpit allowing for better data flow between crew members. The cockpit now has three glass displays that allow one of the two pilots to become a fourth tactical mission operator. We have already successfully completed Air Intercept Control (AIC) from the front cockpit, a mission that has traditionally been done by one of the three operators in the back of the aircraft. This is an increase of 33% in terms of available crew to work a problem. Keep in mind the five person crew of an E-2 is doing the same job as an Air Force AWACS crew of 26,” said Harkins.

VAW-120 ground crew members park a “delta” model Hawkeye after a Red Flag mission.

An additional improvement in the “D” model Hawkeye is it’s radar suite. Not only does the E-2D radar transition from analog to digital, it is a “discontinuous leap” in technology allowing the Hawkeye the ability to see and track targets over land and detect smaller targets. As Lieutenant Commander Harkins said, “we have tested the E-2D in the mountainous ranges here at Nellis and elsewhere throughout the country and it has performed phenomenal.” Translated, the E-2D is now able to tract small fighter size targets over the mountainous ranges with no trouble at all. Earlier model Hawkeyes wouldn’t have been able to track such a small target. Overall, the  E-2D technological improvements dramatically improve situational awareness that can be passed electronically via datalinks to other aircraft thereby increasing the Hawkeye’s combat effectiveness.

The current E-2C Hawkeye mission is approximately four to five hours. The “D” model endurance and on station time will remain the same as the “C” model Hawkeye. Endurance and on station time will increase when the inflight refueling system is introduced. “This can be a mixed blessing. The increased endurance gives the mission commander longer lasting Hawkeye capabilities, however crew fatigue will be increased. These nine hour missions are nothing new and are currently being conducted by strike aircraft in theater,” explained Harkins.

The first generation Hawkeye to have air to air refueling capabilities – photo taken by Kelly Schindler (US Navy).

Inflight refueling is new to the E-2D Hawkeye airframe. Current Hawkeyes do not have this capability. The “D” model will have inflight refueling, although this capability is sill in development. “We have done several test refuelings with “dummy plugs” with our F/A-18s and C-130s. A “dummy plug” is a simply an inert mock up of the refueling probe mounted on the Hawkeye. The current design has the probe centerline (above the cockpit) and in front of the prop arc,” said Harkins. Inflight refueling testing is being conducted at VX-20 and none of the aircraft at Red Flag were inflight refueling equipped. The Inflight refueling is not yet a system for the    E-2D, but the system is funded and flight-testing continues. It is not expected to be available at fleet introduction in 2015 and isn’t expected to be available to the fleet until 2017/2018.

The E-2D is participating in Red Flag 12-3 as part of its Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) Test Phase. As Lieutenant Commander Harkins explained, “the test phase for a new aircraft is divided into two stages. First there is the Developmental Test Phase (DT) that is performed by VX-20. The purpose of this phase is to verify that the system works (“it looks good on paper, lets see how it works”).

The second phase of testing is Operational Test Phase (OT). The purpose of OT is to validate that the system under test meets the user’s needs and requirements. OT takes the information generated by the Developmental Test Phase and determines what the information means in terms of how it can be used in the fleet. As Lieutenant Commander Harkins explained, “in the OT phase we determine several things. Primarily we determine the effectiveness and suitability of the aircraft.  Additionally, We determines how to use the aircraft and it’s capabilities in the fleet/in theater and if current tactics still apply or not.”

Also evaluated during the OT Phase is aircraft suitability. Aircraft suitability allows actual “blue shirts” or enlisted maintainers to get wrenches on the aircraft and test the maintainability of the aircraft. It also gives VX-1 a chance to flex the supply system and see how efficiently parts and supplies for the aircraft get to the fleet. All these phases of Operational Testing are being evaluated while the E-2D is at Red Flag.

According to Lieutenant Commander Harkins, “Red Flag proves and drives home the point of strike packages coordinating and integrating with one another. During the various briefings before a Red Flag mission, E-2D crews will coordinate with mission commanders and strike package commanders. This produces a solid “all-discipline” plan where everyone has a clear understanding of the commander’s intent.”

“When the E-2 is in the fight, things go better. People see farther, strikes happen at longer range, and have a higher success rate. Hawkeyes definitely make the difference in the fight, not a kinetic difference, but an over all difference. She may not be the most glamorous aircraft, but she gets the job done,” said Harkins.

A VX-1 E-2D Hawkeye returns from a Red Flag mission.

A special thanks to Lieutenant Commander Greg Harkins for making time to speak with Military Aviation Journal during a very high tempo Red Flag exercise and sharing his vast experience and insight on the E-2D Hawkeye. An additional thank you goes out to the 26 Officers and 86 Maintainers from VX-1 and VAW-120. These Officers and Maintainers worked around the clock during a very high tempo exercise to ensure E-2D Hawkeyes would be in the simulated fight! Without these individuals, the flight-testing of the latest version of the Hawkeye would not have been the success that it was. Lastly, thanks to U.S. Navy Public Affairs Rob Koon who was instrumental in getting this article approved and providing the air to air photos.