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DRAGON heads south for summer

Pilots and flight engineers finalize the preflight check for an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, June 6. The AWACS aircraft is assigned to the 605th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, and was staged at Ramstein in support of Exercise Astral Knight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jimmie D. Pike)

Pilots and flight engineers in Lt. Col. Tyler Wickham’s E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System finalize the pre-flight check at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, June 6. Screens between Wickham, the pilot sitting front left, co-pilot, Maj. Tim Blake, on the right, show digital information from several sensors for the aircraft, which is equipped with a DRAGON avionics upgrade. In the rear seats, flight engineers Master Sgt. Scott Orta on the left and Master Sgt. Kamanu Fernandez on the right, run checklists. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jimmie D. Pike)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Pilots flew an upgraded E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft across the international date line and into the southern hemisphere in late July.

The flights prove a $1.05 billion aircraft upgrade, called DRAGON, is worthy of long-haul, international flights. DRAGON, which stands for Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation, buys not just new front-seat information for the flight deck crew, but ensures the 40-year-old airframes can continue to operate globally. Current versions operate on steam gauges and analog switches.

“Flying DRAGON is like getting a full-up modern avionics upgrade, which helps us navigate and fly the aircraft with more precision,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Wickham, AWACS test director for Air Combat Command, who is currently testing DRAGON equipped AWACS in Pacific Command as part of initial operational test and evaluation. “Before, I would have to look in five separate places for air speed, altitude, vertical speed, bearing and attitude. Now, all that and more is on one screen.”

The huge rotating dome on an AWACS is distinctive, and is the heart of the weapons system in the aircraft. However, the four-person flight crew, sitting in the front of the plane, are responsible for putting that dome and approximately a dozen battle management Airmen in the correct spot. AWACS then conducts missions by providing friendly forces with an all-seeing eye that can be used to conduct combat, exercises and humanitarian missions.

Wickham says the new equipment gives him the ability to relieve air battle managers, who execute the AWACS core mission, from having to update him on his position relative to friendly and unfriendly forces. His radar and navigation equipment is separate from the battle managers, who rely on the big spinning dome on top the aircraft. DRAGON makes the pilot and flight crew more autonomous, and allows them to use more information to build better flight plans, which makes the battle management crew more effective.

“DRAGON expands the life of the aircraft to the 2030s,” said Capt. John Bennion, PEO Digital’s program manager for DRAGON. “In order to install DRAGON, and remove all the obsolescent equipment, Airmen and contractors must pretty much strip the flight deck down to the bones. In the end, it looks like a modern commercial airliner from the pilot’s seat.”

Mission capable rates are important to the AWACS career field, which is aware their aircraft is vital to operations and faces maintenance issues common to many legacy aircraft, with few suppliers for much of its decades-old equipment. Replacing the avionics should contribute to more available aircraft in the future. That is something senior leaders have highlighted as a priority.

Wickham is leading initial operational testing and evaluation, as required by the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, for the 31 U.S. Air Force aircraft. NATO has declared their 14 DRAGON-equipped AWACS to be fully mission capable. Once testing is complete Steven Wert, program executive officer digital, will determine if the DRAGON program will be able to enter full production based on the results.