TINKER HISTORY: Boeing E-3 Sentry

  • Published
  • By Greg L. Davis
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The Boeing E-3 Sentry is a special mission aircraft built around a highly-modified Boeing Model 707-320 commercial airliner. The Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, is essentially a powerful airborne search and track radar system using a rotating dome affixed 11 feet above the top of the rear fuselage using two aerodynamic pylons. The aircraft itself sits on tricycle landing gear with mid-fuselage mounted, swept-wings with two TF33 engines under each wing. It has a traditional tail configuration.

Tinker’s connection with the E-3 Sentry has stretched over the aircraft’s entire operational life. The first E-3 arrived here in March 1977 directly off the production line and was quickly followed with a total of 35 aircraft purchased between fiscal years 1977-1984. Tinker is the primary operating location for the E-3 and includes both training and operational flight squadrons, unit-level maintenance and depot-level maintenance through the co-located Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization purchased and operates 18 E-3A ‘U.S./NATO Standard’ aircraft. These NATO standard aircraft differ slightly from U.S. Air Force aircraft in the avionics and communications suites necessary to communicate with NATO air and ground units. These aircraft also retain many of the legacy systems and technology when compared to the numerous upgrades given to the U.S.A.F. aircraft over the last 40 years.

There have also been foreign military sales of E-3s: seven to the United Kingdom, five to Saudi Arabia and four to France. These aircraft are all equipped with high-bypass CFM56 engines.

The U.S.A.F.’s current upgrade program, much of which is conducted at Tinker, is currently underway. Block 40/45 represents a revolutionary change for AWACS by modernizing the 1970s era mission computer, controller displays, and other systems using modern off-the-shelf components. An upgraded Identification Friend or Foe system and communications equipment make the E-3 not just a powerful flying radar capable of monitoring and controlling aircraft from ground level to the stratosphere in a 250 mile circle, but also acting as part of a larger Command and Control Battle Management element in the Theater Air Control System by passing information to other players such as fighters for intercepts and ground based assets for monitoring and interrogation. 

In modern warfare the ability to control the skies and achieve air-superiority is critical. Therefore, there are E-3s in-use across the world and the USAF has permanently forward based E-3s at Kadena Air Base, Japan and Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. Air refueling capability gives the Sentry long legs and the ability to quickly deploy and when necessary remain aloft for many hours at a time to meet the needs of combatant commanders.

The venerable E-3 Sentry has played crucial roles in air combat by monitoring and controlling contested airspace over Iraq during Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Northern and Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom, and over Afghanistan in Enduring Freedom. It also played a key role in NATO Operation Allied Force and over the continental US in support of Operation Noble Eagle. If there is an area of tension in the world it is virtually guaranteed an E-3 Sentry is on duty to monitor and control the airspace.


Manufacturer: Boeing

Aircraft type: E-3

Nickname: Sentry/AWACS

Crew: Flight crew of four; 16-20 mission specialists

Power plant: Four Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofan engines producing 21,000 pounds of thrust each.

In-service dates: 1975-present

Number produced: 35

Tinker connection: Flight operations, training, maintenance, repair and overhaul