Not in the Shade(r) Anymore
I first saw the E-3D Sentry when I visited RAF Waddington as an Air Cadet way back in 1997 – at the time all I could remember was that they were named after the Seven Dwarves!
Fast forward nearly 18 years and I’m standing on the pan at RAF Akrotiri just 2 months after completing the Sentry Conversion Course, and I’m about to take-off on my first Op SHADER mission. Op SHADER is the codename for the UK’s ongoing participation in the coalition assisting the Iraqi government’s fight against ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
So, how did this happen, and how are 8 Squadron and the E-3D crews participating in Op SHADER?
I joined the RAF in 2008 as an Aerospace Battle Manager (ABM). After finishing Initial Officer Training at RAF Cranwell I was posted to RAF Boulmer, where I completed my Identification Officer Training. Following tours in bunkers at RAF Boulmer, the Falkland Islands and RAF High Wycombe, I was wondering if I was ever going to get a job that didn’t involve working underground! I had always had the E-3D at the top of my career preferences, and was over the moon to find out that I had been selected to start the course in October 2013.
The conversion course was the longest and most intense course of my career. From completing survival training in freezing conditions on the North Yorkshire Moors, to being winched into a Sea King helicopter off the coast of Cornwall, it is drilled into you from day one that everything you are taught is relevant to your role, and the safety of the aircraft. One of the hardest parts of training is having to learn how to use the mission kit on the E-3D. The system was originally designed in the 1970s; coming from an environment where everything is Microsoft Windows-based, to having to learn how to use a computer system that is similar to MS-DOS takes a lot of time and effort.
My role on the aircraft is either as a Surveillance Operator or as an Electronic Support Measures Operator; this meant that a lot of work had to be dedicated to working out how to differentiate different radars by their unique parameters –vital when working in known missile engagement zones, and something completely alien to me before the course started. The hard work all paid off when I received my Brevet and Limited Combat Ready status at a special graduation ceremony in December 2014.
As soon as I moved onto 8 Squadron after a Christmas break, 2 things were immediately obvious to me. Firstly there was a real ‘buzz’ about the whole building – there are around 6 crews at the moment, along with all the squadron support staff (that’s a lot of names and faces to remember!), and everyone is busy working towards the next exercise or operation. Secondly, there was no way that there would be any relaxing now we had finished our initial training; we were straight into working towards achieving our Combat Ready status, a task which has to be achieved within six months of joining the Squadron.
About 2 weeks after arriving I was told that I would be deploying to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus as part of the 8 Squadron effort in support of Op SHADER. While this was not totally unexpected, it was definitely an eyeopener! It was fantastic to see how all the various units at RAF Waddington swung into action, organising all the various crews’ pre-deployment training and paperwork, and generally bending over backwards to help in any way possible. We carried out extra simulator scenarios as formed crews, focusing our minds on what we would be expected to achieve when deployed.
In what appeared to be no time at all, our crew arrived in Cyprus and began digesting the various documents and briefs required to participate in the Operation. The crews had been organised to ensure that the more experienced members of Squadron were with the new members, and this provided me with invaluable support and guidance, making what could have been an extremely daunting experience a lot easier.
My first Op SHADER mission was definitely something I will never forget – for a start I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy! The E-3D is tasked to both build the recognised air picture (to share with other ground and air assets), and to coordinate all allied air assets for tanking and reconnaissance/strikes against ISIL targets. Working in partnership with the US Air Force, we are ‘On Task’ for 8 hours at a time; this normally means that the E-3D is airborne for around 12 hours (including transit), and also has to refuel mid-mission. This was the first time I have ever seen this from the cockpit; it was a pretty terrifying experience seeing 2 aircraft each weighing around 150 tons about 20ft away from each other! During one of our missions we also observed the build-up to the removal of the Suleyman Shah tomb by Turkish forces – an event that made headlines around the world.
In 3 weeks I flew around 100 hours, and I cannot think of a better way to consolidate all the learning that I had achieved over the previous 16 months; my knowledge of the Sentry aircraft and its capabilities was greatly expanded. My absolute favourite part of being on 8 Squadron is the mix of personnel and experience on the platform; everyone is willing to help each other out and work for each other, both on the ground and in the air. When I look back over the past 18 months it has been the most worthwhile period of my career, and I am looking forward to spending more time on this fantastic aircraft wherever it may take me.