Battleland

“My `Right There’ Is Just a Little Farther Away”

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Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Eric Harris

A U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry aircraft takes off from an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.

Air Force Major Ethan McKenna is one of those war-fighters in the nation’s post-9/11 wars who spends his time way above the battlefield. That’s because he’s monitoring things five miles down from inside the back of an AWACS – Airborne Warning and Control System — E-3 Sentry, a modified Boeing 707 with its distinctive rotating radar atop the fuselage.

He spent much of 2002 above and around Afghanistan, and 2006 and 2007 over Iraq with the 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron and 363rd Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron. In this July interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he recalls his tours. Excerpts:

After 9/11, Tinker Air Force Base and the AWACS wing there really spun up and began deploying crews over to the Middle East to prepare for operations in Afghanistan. A good portion of the wing continued flying Operation Noble Eagle, which are the homeland defense missions. I flew those missions for gosh, quite some time after 9/11 and ended up getting ready to deploy I want to say it was in May of 2002, maybe the summer of 2002.

Usually we’d get three to four months with all the aircraft and crews being at Tinker Air Force Base. There’s a pretty long range projection of the scheduled deployments. Normally, unless someone has to fall out of a crew or whatnot, you have a pretty good idea of where you’re going and when you’re going. We had a long time to prepare for the mission and plan for what was going on.
By the time we were going over for OEF, it was a mature theater. It was post-Operation Anaconda so a lot of the larger scale fighting had ceased. We had a pretty good idea of what was going to be happening when we got there…
We went into Oman. My previous deployments to the Middle East had all been to Prince Sultan Air Base, which is a very large, well built-up facility in Saudi Arabia with dorms and large buildings, a large gym, and chow halls.
It’s almost like community living as opposed to Thumrait Air Base in Oman, which was tent living, the small tent chow hall with the mice running around on the floor. It’s still the Middle East, it’s still the desert, but it’s not quite as nice of an environment as it had been in the previous time. Then again, they did a lot to try and make it comfortable at least. We expected all of that. We knew we were going into tents as opposed to barracks so you kind of brought all the stuff with you that you knew you’d need to try and make it more pleasant or enjoyable…
We would fly to Afghanistan controlling aircraft both from an administrative function as well as controlling any strikes that were taking place; coordinating close air support and coordinating with Special Forces teams…
On our flying days, we’d normally show up about at noon planning for about a 1500 takeoff. That is local time. It took us about three or three and a half hours to actually get to Afghanistan flying through Pakistan.
Once we got there, we’d actually get on station, there’d be an E-3 already on station, and we’d take over from them. There was generally about eight hours of on station time and then return. Our normal flight days were about 15 or 16 hours with about three hours on the front end and three hours on the back end de-briefing. They were pretty long days but generally, we had enough people on the crew that you could rotate certain positions out so you didn’t necessarily have to have everyone staring at the console talking on the radio the whole time…
We’d generally fly with 24 people on the aircraft. That’s everyone from the pilots to the radar technicians in the back. I was the senior director, which means I was essentially in charge of the weapons section. The controllers on the E-3 are the ones actually talking on the radio and they all work for me so coordinating everything that was going on in the air — that all goes through me…
When we deployed I think we deployed with probably five crews because at that point the Brits were taking one of the — we broke the day into three eight-hour on station times and I believe the Brits were taking one of the on station times if I remember correctly. I think we had five U.S. crews over there along with the support people so it was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 to 200 people deployed in support of that…
We’d fly every third day. We’d alternate between being a spare aircraft, flying, and then basically a day to recover from the flight. It essentially worked out to every three days actually flying…
I’m in the back part of the plane with no windows. We have the radar scopes and the blinking and flashing lights. In the back portion of the aircraft, we have the weapons section, just what I’m in charge of, talking to the aircraft, coordinating anything that’s going on whether it’s an air battle, coordinating strikes, and coordinating for calls for close air support.
We have another section, which is looking for any de-confliction problems whether its hostile aircraft, unidentified aircraft, trying to run the ID matrix, or just d-conflicting if there are civilians and non-participants out there. We also have a section that’s looking for any signals intelligence. We’re kind of broken up in the back of the aircraft in terms of the operators doing that and we also have technicians who are trying to keep everything on the 40-year-old airplane working.
Then there are the guys up front who actually drive us around, put us in the right spots, and take care of the air refueling…
We’re generally pretty far removed from any air routes or any other air traffic. Again, there was no threat from other aircraft. I don’t know — there never was in Afghanistan, but the small Air Force they did have was gone within probably a couple of hours within the start of hostilities.
We weren’t concerned about other aircraft. We were more looking out for if we had F-16s out in a combat air patrol (CAP) like if a Lufthansa flight was coming through Afghanistan we wanted to make sure the F-16s didn’t fly too close to the Lufthansa flight and get in trouble. Or just de-conflict if there was someone on the ground that was doing something and they didn’t want airplanes over head, we wanted to make sure to move everyone out of the way…
Some of the biggest challenges — again, the theater is constantly evolving and you try to evolve with it. How do you improve your processes? How do you make things better but not just for the guys there right then but for the next guys coming in? How do you take those lessons learned and actually capture them and make them useful? That can become difficult when you’re flying 15-hour missions and working 20-hour days.
Sometimes it’s a struggle to land and still take the time to say, “Here are some of the things we saw.  Here are some of the things we did. Let’s make sure we’ve taken a look at this so we as a crew can learn from it and get better at it,” but maybe it’s something we can pass on to the next guys and say, “Here’s something we saw. Maybe we can capture this and get everyone information from it.”
Sometimes you have the tendency to say, “Let’s go fly another mission. Let’s get this mission done and not screw anything up. Come back, go to sleep, and do it again tomorrow.” That’s probably the biggest thing. During that deployment, it became fairly routine from a mission standpoint just because we were not controlling a huge number of aircraft and there was not a lot of activity on the ground. It was very sporadic…
It’s an old aircraft and it takes about an hour from time you take off to the time you’ve got everything working so it takes a while to know that everything is good to go. We always have to have the spare aircraft ready to launch because you don’t have enough time to bring the aircraft back, land, move the whole crew over to the new aircraft, pre-flight it, check all the systems out, and then take off again…you’ll always find we have a spare and a primary for every mission…
We always have maintenance issues with the aircraft. We had one aircraft, which I don’t think flew the entire time I was there just because they could not get it working. On the whole, I do not remember having any, if very many flights, where we had to turn back because we couldn’t get the system up and running. As I said, I can’t remember that we ever came back because we couldn’t get the system working. In general the maintainers did a good job getting the system running and the techs did a good job of getting everything going once we took off, which is a good thing otherwise it just throws everything off…
It’s the first time I ever saw a camel spider…Over in the Middle East they have — I’m not a scientist but it’s my understanding is that it’s a cross between a spider and a scorpion. It’s a giant spider, which apparently gives a horrible bite if you were to get bit by it. The maintainers in the maintenance tent had captured a camel spider. As I mentioned there were lots of mice so they would catch mice and throw the mice in and the camel spider — let’s just say the mice did not win…

camelspiders.net

A camel spider.

They’re like a big tarantula but they’re very aggressive. The stories were that the camel spiders would actually chase people at night. They weren’t chasing the people, apparently what they were chasing was the shadow but of course when you’re the person you think the camel spider is chasing you. Apparently, I had some friends that were chased by camel spiders and quickly became seven-year-old girls running and screaming through the area [Laughs]…
Our deployments kept getting longer as more and more operations started happening. That changed it a little bit. We had a pretty good idea as things were spinning up in Iraq that we were going to be going. Long before we started issuing the deployment orders and everything like that, we’d already built crews and started spinning up as if it was going to happen, just as part of our normal training…
We went to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia and that was the standard place that the AWACS flew out of; a lot of the tankers would fly out of Prince Sultan Air Base and that’s where the air operations center was located at that time. It has since been cleared of U.S. Forces.
I think it was cleared of U.S. Forces in late 2003 when the Saudi government decided they didn’t want us there anymore. It is their country so when they tell us to leave, we leave…
We deployed over there and we actually got over there and we really started doing the same mission we’d been doing out of Prince Sultan Air Base for years, which I’d already been over there doing before which was Operation Southern Watch. When we got over there we were doing Operation Southern Watch missions, the normal missions: making sure they weren’t flying in the no-fly zone, moving stuff, they were doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing in there, but it was all towards the expectation of combat operations actually commencing. We were really essentially initially just flying our standard Operation Southern Watch missions.
We’d moved so much stuff over there that — Prince Sultan Air Base was too full so we had to build tent cities and later trailer part cities and everything else all around Prince Sultan Air Base.
Every time you stand that stuff up it’s always a little challenging. They set up tents but they don’t set up showers or toilets and they set up toilets but they don’t set up running water. It’s a constant just trying to figure out, “Okay, what can we get next? What’s the next thing we can get to make this a livable environment when we’re not flying?”
Gosh, I think we were over there and flying Southern Watch missions for about a month prior to the start of OIF. We’d been flying for a while back over there before they actually commenced the operation itself…
Once OIF kicked off, obviously we changed up the command and control structure and had more aircraft airborne. Initially Operation Southern Watch was not a 24-hour operation but as we got closer to the expectation of combat operations, it became 24 hours. We started doing what we did in Afghanistan; the three eight-hour on station times for aircraft. We ultimately ended up with 24 hours a day having three E-3A AWACS Airborne. Two from the U.S. and one from the Brits were airborne at all times controlling the aircraft and controlling the air battle, if you will…
I happened to be on a crew the day it kicked off. We see all the cruise missiles leading the way and all of the Marine air coming in as things started going. Of course, then we got the three-day snapshot. Every three days we’d go out and fly and you’d see the progress and what happened since the last three days. You’d get the intel briefs but once you’re actually seeing everything and seeing the lines as you plot them out on the scope, you can really see the progress as it’s happening…
Sometimes with those things, once you really expect it and it’s just a foregone conclusion that this is going to happen, whether it happens tomorrow or a year from now, the only difference is how long I’m going to be here. So, if we’re going to do it, let’s just do it. Once we went in and got started everyone was like, “Okay, good. Let’s just take care of business.” Again, very professional.  Everyone had trained for this and prepared for this and it was really just a matter of going out and executing what we’d planned for…
There are two things that stand out [about Iraq] the most. We would normally fly around northern Saudi Arabia during Operation Southern Watch. We wouldn’t actually go into Iraq. The fighters would go into Iraq; the aircraft able to defend themselves, drop bombs, and shoot missiles. We would stay back farther away where no one would get to us. Once we took out their integrated air system, their fighters were no longer flying, and the operations moved farther north ultimately the AWACS started pushing farther north as well.
Ultimately, we ended up flying not too far away from Baghdad. It was really interesting.  We were orbiting over an airfield, Al Asad Airfield in Iraq, which was the home of their primary interceptor fighter. This was the air base — when we did all our spin up planning, where was the aircraft going to come from that were going to shoot us down? This is where the aircraft were that were going to shoot us down and here we were flying around this air base because there is nothing flying from anywhere. They hadn’t flown anything since day one, since the cruise missiles went in. It was kind of surreal that in such a short period of time we went from, “Here’s our primary threat to we can fly wherever we want to. We own the entire skies over Iraq and we can set up wherever we need to based on the mission we’re trying to accomplish and who we’re trying to talk to.”
The other thing is that I happened to be airborne when they found the seven prisoners of war (POWs). We had to do a lot of coordination with that and it was an unplanned mission. We basically got a call that they were going in to try and pick up the POWs so we had to put together a support package that could escort them in, provide suppressive fire if needed and make sure they could get in and out safely.
That was very satisfying. The fact that they got them, and very satisfying for us as a crew that we were able to put together the necessary air assets to support that, get all the right pieces into place, all the coordination, get the right types of aircraft, making sure everyone has the right fuel and armament, and pull them out. That was a very satisfying, worthwhile experience and again, it was just luck of the draw that I happened to be in the aircraft that was controlling that sector when it happened. Otherwise, somebody else would have done just as well because we all received the same training. I just happened to be there for that…
One of those things that people talk about where you think, “I know where I was,” and I was right there.
When I say, “right there” I actually mean 150 miles away, 30,000 feet off the ground. My “right there” is just a little farther away than the other guys you talk to.
MORE: Afghanistan’s “Crazy Lost Guys” and Time’s Force-Multiplier

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