RAF Sentry 30th Anniversary
This year, as difficult as it is and after an initial postponement, sees the 30th Anniversary celebration of the E-3D in operational service with the Royal Air Force.
Probably one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable aircraft in the world the Sentry has flown many hours in theatres such as the Balkans and in support of various operations in the Gulf; at the last count a total of 43 countries had been visited including Pago Pago, not including the ones we’ve flown seemingly endless orbits over! To that end it would be a dreadful shame should we let the date go unrecognised. Therefore, it is intended that restrictions allowing, a celebration of thirty years of service will be held on 23rd October 2021 at The Lincolnshire Showground.
It all began on the 1st July 1991 as the RAF was officially handed the first of seven E-3D aircraft numbered ZH102. The occasion was marked with a parade and official handing over ceremony complete with marching bands various, many troops in attendance somewhat bravely carrying weapons, and officers bravely carrying swords. A Grand occasion indeed!
Replacing the mighty Avro Shackleton that served prior to the E-3D/Sentry/AWACS was ordered upon failure of the long nosed and long hoped for Nimrod AEW platform, with the E-3 already a proven NATO asset having been the mainstay of the Multi-National NATO Early Warning Force since 1982. Taking over from the venerable ‘Shack’ was never going to be easy but the role requirements stayed the same; to monitor airspace providing threat detection of adversary aircraft and situational awareness on friendly assets, with the added ability to detect contacts within the maritime environment.
The anachronistic and much-loved Shackleton airframes had adopted names associated with The Magic Roundabout, a child’s program from the seventies subsequently discovered to contain more double entendres than an episode of Blackadder. It was decided the Sentry aircraft would adopt the monikers of the seven dwarves of Snow White fame, surely a safer bet. And so it was that Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy entered the RAF inventory, initially forming about 25% of the total NATO AEW force. In recent years the fleet has been forced to reduce somewhat in number but operational output remains as important as ever and is treated as such. The mighty 8 Sqn were the first Sqn to fly the aircraft with 23 Sqn taking the role as the conversion unit sometime later in 1996.
Little over a year after initial operational service with RAF, the aircraft and crews saw action over the Balkans in support of NATO Operations and subsequently over Northern Iraq in 1994 during Op WARDEN. 1998 saw the Sentry upgraded under the Radar System Improvement Program at a cost of £120 million which included fitment of the ‘new’ Global Positioning System, since then the aircraft and crews have been involved and deployed in support of Op Oracle 2001, Op TELIC in 2003 and Op ELLAMY in 2011 with involvement in Op SHADER still ongoing.
Operating the aircraft has seen a somewhat unusual mix of crewmembers making beer calls interesting with arguments regarding the subtleties of airborne tech vs real aircrew and weapons vs surveillance, neither of which are real aircrew, however it has always been agreed by all crew that the aircraft was somewhere to send navigators as a damage limitation exercise. It is in fact, the only aircraft still flying within RAF inventory with a Navigator and Air Engineer. It will be a sad day when those flying badges with so much history, are grounded for good.
2009 saw the disbandment of 23 Sqn, leaving 8 Sqn as the sole RAF operator of the Sentry aircraft.
Recent times have seen ZH104 ‘Sleepy’ move to pastures new whilst significant work continues by the talented engineers, maintaining the ageing fleet. Announcement by the UK Government that the Wedgetail will replace the Sentry in 2023 was met with enthusiasm by all concerned. As an addendum it now appears the Wedgetail and the Sqn operating it will operate from RAF Lossiemouth, returning to the home of ‘The Shack’ and continuing the work of the Sentry for what we hope, will be another 30 years.