Photos of the Week: Eyes in the Sky

Air Force’s ‘AWACS’ plane controls airborne battlespace

By BlueSkyStaff

Published May 2, 2022

Read Time: 2 mins


The U.S. Air Force takes the term “Flying Control Tower” to a whole new level.

The Boeing E-3 Sentry is one of the most unusual-looking aircraft in the service’s inventory. It also fulfills one of the Air Force’s most important missions.

Known as an airborne warning and control system (AWACS for short), the E-3 is used to collect intelligence from a battlespace by identifying aircraft. It uses surveillance and target detection methods to feed information back to allied forces, including how many potential threats exist and where they are located.

The E-3 is most recognizable by the massive saucer-like radar assembly that sits atop the plane’s fuselage. The apparatus is 30 feet in diameter—about the length of two mid-sized sedans—and six feet thick. It has a 360-degree view and is capable of detecting and tracking targets over 250 miles away, about the distance between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

An E-3 will carry a flight crew of four along with up to 19 mission specialists, although this varies depending on the mission. Mission specialists sit inside the plane’s cabin at stations controlling various onboard computers that process intelligence gathered by the aircraft’s systems.

Based on the Boeing 707 passenger jet, the E-3 first entered service with the Air Force in 1977, making it one of the oldest types flying in the service. The E-3 may be at the tail end of its career; the Air Force recently announced its intentions to acquire Boeing’s newer E-7 Wedgetail, which is based on the 737-700, to replace its aging Sentries.

The E-3 is also one of the rarest aircraft in the inventory, with just 33 currently in service. Most of the fleet is based at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City, home of the 552nd Air Control Wing, which operates the E-3.

Andrew Stover caught this E-3 arriving at Tinker after a mission. With so few of the type flying, we can imagine how lucky he felt seeing one of the Air Force’s “Eyes in the Sky.”

And speaking of sky, we’re excited to see the sunshine lately as spring rolls towards summer. We look forward to seeing more beautiful weather days ahead, like the one captured by Kevin Firth in his photo of Southwest’s Freedom One livery taxiing to the runway at PIT last summer.

Thanks, Andrew and Kevin!

Our readers continue to pass along shots of unique aircraft, international airports, historical events, gorgeous views and even family vacation photos for this feature. We love them! Keep them coming—you can click here for submission guidelines.

Southwest’s Freedom One livery taxis to the runway at Pittsburgh International Airport last summer. (Photo submitted by Kevin Firth)

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