First woman among group to enter AWACS program tours jet before final reduction

  • Published

The final E-3 Sentry Airborne Early Warning and Control System scheduled for reduction departed Tinker Air Force Base for the final time September 21, 2023.

Aircraft 83-0009 is now among over a dozen AWACS sent to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group  in Tucson, Arizona for reduction. The process is part of the FY23 President’s Budget Request, when the Department of the Air Force announced its intent to divest 13 AWACS aircraft and redirect funding to procure and field a replacement.

AMARG, America’s Airpower Reservoir, is a one-of-a-kind specialized facility within the Air Force Sustainment Center, providing aircraft preservation and storage, parts reclamation, disposal preparation, aircraft regeneration to flying status, and depot maintenance for America's military services, U.S. government agencies, and allied governments.

The September 21, 2023 departure marks the 12th AWACS to depart Tinker Air Force Base. The 13th aircraft, 71-1407, is scheduled to remain on base and serve as a static display.

By retiring the E-3, the 552nd Air Control Wing can focus on prioritizing the health of the remaining fleet. Divesting part of the fleet will improve sustainability by adding high demand, low availability parts back into the supply chain, providing a temporary improvement for aircraft availability.

Before aircraft 83-0009 left for reduction, one final visitor helped bid it farewell. Over two decades have passed since Martha “Fran” Stephens last stepped foot onto what’s commonly known as “the bird cage” at Tinker Air Force Base. Stephens is all too familiar with this aircraft in particular.

“When I started in the U.S. Air Force, this was my plane,” said Stephens. “It has always had a special part in my life and my husband’s because he also worked the AWACS.”

It was 1981 when Fran first began working at Tinker as an AWACS radar technician.  While touring the aircraft for the final time, Stephens met Airman 1st Class Mariam Cham, a current radar technician with the 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

“I came into this field ready to pull my fair share,” said Stephens. “If something was a 50 lbs. weight for two people and had to be lifted, I lifted it whether I was physically able to or not—it was very rare anyone had to help me.”

Stephens will tell you her 15-year career was one of hard work and dedication. Throughout her time in the AWACS program, Stephens broke several glass ceilings.

“I was the first five level, the first seven level, first production superintendent, the first shop chief at Kadena Air Base, Japan that was a woman,” said Stephens. “I was the first quality assurance person that came in this field for radar, the first avionics section heads in quality assurance.”

The end of an era may be near for the AWACS, however the future has never looked brighter.

“We’re going to miss the jet,” said Col. Kenneth Voigt, Commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing. “I have a lot of fond memories flying on this aircraft particular, but it is part of our process as we start to bring the future and bring the future faster.”

“If someone tells you they worked on an AWACS, that probably means they worked like a dog,” said Stephens. “They should be respected for that.”

Looking into the future, the Air Force has considered and assessed suitable E-3 AWACS replacements to align with the operational needs. On April 26, 2022, the Air force publicized its intent to replace a portion of the AWACS with the E-7A aircraft. The Boeing E-7A is the only platform capable of meeting the requirements for the Defense Department’s tactical battle management, command and control and air moving target indicator capabilities.

The first E-3 AWACS arrived at Tinker March 23, 1977. Since then, most of the aircraft have been housed and sustained here. Although the basing strategy for the E-7 has not yet been finalized, the existing infrastructure will be considered as basing and sustainment options are evaluated. The E-3 AWACS community values the long-standing relationship between Tinker AFB and Oklahoma.