OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb: To say there have been a lot of changes in the past 35 years would be a bit of an understatement.
To give a frame of reference, gas was roughly 50 cents a gallon, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently own six Super Bowl trophies, had yet to win their first, and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was in full swing.
However, there is one thing that has not changed and that’s the E-4 sitting on continuous alert, ready to respond to any crisis at a moment’s notice.
The E-4 is a militarized version of the Boeing 747-200 and serves as the National Airborne Operations Center for the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was delivered to the Air Force for operational use in December 1974 and assumed alert status from the EC-135J 35 years ago this month. Since then, the aircraft and her Nightwatch team have been continuously ready, serving “hot” alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The E-4B is the most technologically advanced airborne system in the world,” said Lt. Col. David Gaskill, 1st Airborne Command Control Squadron commander, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the aircraft. “From the front to (the) back of the jet, we’ve got some of the brightest and most professional Airmen in the Air Force.”
Originally known as the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, the E-4’s mission during the late 1970s and 1980s was to provide the president a safe location to conduct wartime operations in the event of a nuclear attack, earning the jet the dubious moniker, “the doomsday plane.”
As the Cold War came to a close in the 1990s, the E-4 remained on alert status, but saw its mission expand and name change to the NAOC in 1994.
“The mission focus expanded to satisfy national leadership, worldwide command, control and communications requirements across the entire threat spectrum, not only nuclear,” said Col. Martin Doebel, NAOC commander, who has served as part of the E-4 mission for more than 17 years.
Through the years the E-4’s responsibilities have continued to grow and now include not only national leadership, but also support to civil authorities in response to natural disasters and other non-wartime crises.
“The NAOC mission is unquestionably important, but I’m honestly more impressed by the quality of our Airmen charged with its execution,” Colonel Doebel said.
A standard E-4 alert crew consists of roughly 60 people. This includes 40 from the 55th Wing’s operations, maintenance and mission support groups along with 20 from NAOC, who are assigned to U.S. Strategic Command.
Of the 55th Wg’s alert personnel, 15 different specialties are represented including pilots, navigators, flight engineers, aircraft maintainers, flight attendants, communication officers, data and radio operators, security forces and technical controllers.
“I really enjoy being a part of the E-4 mission,” said Staff Sgt. Krystal Lerohl, a flight attendant with the 1st ACCS. “Every time we fly I know we are part of a very important mission so it’s an honor to be onboard.”
“The best part of serving on the E-4 is twofold,” said Airman 1st Class Andrew Branch, a 1st ACCS data operator. “It’s a unique mission to support the president and the SecDef while being in an environment where you can always expand your knowledge on the equipment you work with.”
Getting and remaining qualified on all the required systems is a huge challenge for maintenance personnel charged with keeping the E-4 mission ready due to the aircraft’s size and ever changing modifications. However, this constant battle does not take away the pride in those that serve this important mission.
“We are a very close-knit team that works well together because everyone assigned here understands what our mission is and focuses on accomplishing the mission with great pride,” said Senior Master Sgt. Darrell Amoruso, 1st Aircraft Maintenance Unit assistant superintendent. “It makes me very proud to serve alongside the professional men and women who provide the absolute best maintenance in the world for such a large, premier platform.”
The NAOC alert staff includes Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines from a variety of specialties. Combined, they provide the necessary skills to support the battle staff mission.
“Serving this nation as a part of the NAOC team is a great source of pride and satisfaction,” said Lt. Col. Russell Mammoser, command center operations chief for NAOC Operations Team 2. “It is truly amazing how a diverse team of 55th Wing and STRATCOM professionals meld to execute such a vital mission.”
“Each service brings their unique perspective when it comes to the different aspects of the mission we are tasked with,” said Marine Corps Maj. Matt Stover, an emergency actions officer for NAOC Operations Team 2. “The way an Army artillery officer approaches a challenge may be entirely different from the way a naval aviator would handle similar circumstances and different yet from an Air Force pilot.”
From the outside, the gleaming white, four-engine, swept-wing E-4 may look like the same plane that first sat alert in 1975, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to Colonel Doebel, the designation change from E-4A to E-4B in 1980 introduced two fundamental technological enhancements to the aircraft. This included the integration of satellite communications with the Super High Frequency system operating over the Defense Satellite Communications System, bringing with it the distinctive second hump on top of the aircraft in the form of the SHF antenna radome, and aerial refueling capability. Together, these provided the E-4 true worldwide operations and communications capability.
“The E-4B has seen a steady stream of modernization efforts, principally focused on integration of new Air Force or DOD communications systems, such as the Extremely High Frequency Milstar system and sustainment of existing C3 systems,” Colonel Doebel said. “The most significant E-4B modernization effort was delivered in 2006 with aircraft 73-1677, transitioning (from) an analog communications backbone to a digital fiber-optic system and providing robust broadband access supporting myriad voice, data and video information systems, applications and tools across all classification levels.”
While having the latest and greatest technology available is important to the mission, it can be challenging to the crews at times.
“One of the biggest challenges is keeping our training syllabus current with the newest modification,” Colonel Gaskill said. “As the technology advances and new systems are added, we continuously change the training syllabus … learning the systems and how the new system affects your job, the job of those around you and the users is an on-going challenge.”
The Air Force has four E-4s in its inventory and in a typical year the fleet will fly more than 50 overseas missions, including stops in more than 25 countries. For some personnel arriving for duty on the aircraft, getting used to the alert schedule can be an adjustment.
“Some handle it better than others,” Colonel Gaskill said. “We try to keep the crews on a somewhat predictable schedule to ease the uncertainty of what can happen on alert. The jet must be continuously ready to launch. Running from weather that could jeopardize mission accomplishment, completing assigned (higher headquarters) taskings and juggling crew readiness with limited resources is a non-stop game that we play.”
“I think it’s normal to feel very jumpy the first few times because you never know when the Klaxon might go off,” Sergeant Lerohl said. “I remember sleeping in my flight suit the first couple of times, but I don’t do that anymore. As time goes by, you feel more and more prepared.”
“Alert can be an adjustment period, but for those of us that come here straight from (technical) school we don’t really know any different,” said Staff Sgt. Elena Alonzo, a radio operator, instructor and evaluator with the 1st ACCS. “Alert is our schedule and we know that every three weeks we will be gone for a week at a time.”
Even with 35 years in its contrails, the E-4 continues to look ahead. Small modifications to the jet are almost always ongoing and soon it will be back on a four-year maintenance and modernization cycle that will allow one aircraft to be out of service at a time.
“It is unlikely there will be another E-4 modernization effort of a similar magnitude to the digital upgrade,” Colonel Doebel said. But rather he expects “a series of smaller efforts focused on modernization and sustainment of existing systems, and increased integration of current capabilities to provide an enhanced seamless information environment for all mission customers.”
Factoring in all of the modernization efforts to the aircraft over the past 35 years, the value of each E-4 is nearly $1 billion. With a jet that valuable, a global mission and its list of high-profile users, the alert crews have no trouble staying focused on the task at hand.
“People like what they do and are dedicated to the mission,” Colonel Gaskill said. “I think everyone realizes who is watching and the importance of the mission. The trust that I have in their ability to respond on short notice taskings or solve unforeseen problems is unprecedented. They are some of the best our country has to offer.”
“Understanding why, in the most extreme case, we ask our Airmen to be vigilant, constantly on the watch pulling alert 24/7 is sobering,” Colonel Doebel said. “I like to think it’s because of the diligence and tireless dedication and sacrifice of all the Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and Marines of the Nightwatch team who have pulled alert (for the) past 35 years on the E-4, that we have been successful in deterring and dissuading our potential adversaries.”