April 7, 2003
Hawkeye tells planes where to bomb
It's Navy bridge between ground and air warriors
By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION – The increased emphasis on providing close air support to the ground troops in Iraq has put new demands on an unusual Navy airplane that looks like it has been captured by a flying saucer.
The E-2C Hawkeyes, designed for early warning and fighter control duties over blue water and far from harm, have been operating over land, within reach of Iraqi air defenses, to help attacking aircraft find targets to bomb in front of the coalition ground forces.
"They (E-2Cs) have found that they have the ability to work to be a bridge between our aircraft delivering ordnance and the ground controllers," said Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello, commander of the Constellation battle group.
Because the Hawkeyes can stay on station over Iraq significantly longer than the fighters, "they have created the continuity in command and control facility up there," Costello said.
That can be a big help to arriving fighters, which may have enough fuel to remain in the area for minutes only.
"As such, the E-2 has been a significant enhancement in these operations," the admiral said.
The Hawkeye is one of the critical support airplanes in the carrier air wing. It is the only full-time carrier-based aircraft still driven by propellers. Those twin whirling blades, invisible at night, are one of the most feared hazards on the flight deck.
Its unique feature, and its main "weapon system," is the large, saucer-like radar dome above its fuselage. It allows the three naval flight officers who sit in the crowded rear cabin to see and direct aircraft well over 100 miles away.
The E-2Cs from the three carriers in the Persian Gulf are providing "24/7" coverage over southern Iraq, said Lt. Cmdr. William Bulis, a pilot with Airborne Early Warning Squadron 116, Constellation's Hawkeye unit.
"There's usually one on station, one going out, one coming in. It's a long way, and we're not very fast," he said.
When they arrive at their designated location, or station, they contact the various ground controllers in their assigned sector of Iraq to see who has a target, Bulis said.
"As they find them, we find fighters that have ordnance to put on target," Bulis said after just such a mission.
"Guys will check in with us, tell us how much time on station they have – how much fuel – and what weapons they have," he said, referring to the fighters. "We'll hold them as long as we can, keep them from hitting each other."
In addition to the two or three hours they can stay on station, major assets of a Hawkeye are its 10 radios, which allow the crew to talk to a lot of airplanes or ground controllers at one time.
"We're just an airborne facilitator, making things happen for the guys on the ground," Bulis said.
During the two weeks of the air war, he said, "We've talked to every kind of aircraft from every nation that has aircraft out here. We deal with everyone who has ordnance to deliver, and anyone on the ground who needs it."
Lt.jg. Chinh Doan, a naval flight officer in VAW-116 just back from controlling strikes south of Baghdad, said they had directed Air Force B-52s, F-15s and F-16s, as well as Navy F-14s and F/A-18s from both Constellation and Kitty Hawk.
"We probably reached out and touched maybe 30 aircraft," Doan said. "It was pretty busy. We had our hands full. A lot of stuff to do, a lot of people to talk to."
"We don't drop bombs, don't have any ordnance – but we help by finding targets," Doan said.
Unlike the fighters they are directing, the E-2Cs have no defenses against the Iraqi anti-aircraft weapons.
"We go in armed with the knowledge of where the (anti-air) stuff is," Bulis said. "We change altitude and station a lot, stay unpredictable."
And, "we're counting on everyone else's stuff to keep us safe," he added, referring to the EA-6B radar jamming planes.
Although the risk may be higher, the Hawkeye crews like their new missions of providing support for the ground forces.
"It's very fulfilling when you help someone like our troops on the ground," Doan said. "It feels good."