With Norbert Bąk on what you can see from 10,000 meters above ground and the spirit of cooperation on board AWACS talks Łukasz Zalesiński.
Are you going to miss AWACS?
I think so, yes. My service in Geilenkirchen was the adventure of a lifetime.
Once, a Hercules pilot told me that he liked these machines because you could really feel the team spirit when you were on board. I guess this is nothing compared to the atmosphere on board AWACS. There is a whole bunch of people there.
Depending on the type of mission, the crew numbers 16 to even 30 people. It is an international group, but there is great understanding among everyone regardless of the crew’s composition. Despite having had various experiences before the mission, we had all been trained according to the same procedures. Still, the fact that this mechanism functions so flawlessly never ceased to amaze me. At least at the beginning...
Let us look at the crew’s work for a moment. The aircraft is given a task and takes off. What happens next?
The crew can be divided into several groups. The first group is the team at the cockpit. Until recently, it was made up of four people: pilot, co-pilot, navigator and on-board engineer. AWACS aircraft are constantly modernized, though. During the last modernization, new navigation equipment was installed, among other things. This change led to reducing the cockpit crew to three people. Therefore, I was the third and the last Pole working as an AWACS navigator. The people at the cockpit are responsible for the flight itself: take-off, landing, navigation, communication with Air Traffic Control.
The pilot is not the commander here, like in most aircraft crews?
No, the tactical director (TD), sitting in the back of the aircraft, is the commander of the mission. He manages several groups that execute particular elements of the task given to the whole crew. He supervises the “surveillance” sections and specialists referred to as the “passive controllers.” They are all responsible for creating the so-called picture of the situation in the air, on the sea and on land. To put it simply, they collect all kinds of data which together help to carry out comprehensive reconnaissance of a given territory. For instance, they identify airships or sea vessels that appear within the observed range. Soldiers working in those sections use all sensors available on board, active and passive. The main one is the AN/APY-2 radar – a huge disc mounted in the upper part of the aircraft that allows for scanning territory within the radius of several hundred kilometers.
The crew also includes the “weapons controllers” section, which controls air combat. These specialists handle combat aircraft, and sometimes also missile launchers. Sometimes fighter pilots turn off radars in order not to reveal their positions. In times like these they can count on AWACS. Thanks to data-exchange connections, they receive a full picture of the tactical situation, locations of given targets, tasks to be carried out. Our specialists also assist ship crews. The radars of vessels are limited by the radar horizon, so the seamen might not be able to see approaching aircraft or missiles sufficiently in advance. We can see much more from above. We are able to collect necessary information even at a distance of several hundred kilometers from where aircraft or vessels operate.
The AWACS crew also includes technicians: one is responsible for radars, one for communications, and one for the electronic system on board. During long missions some of the crew members have their substitutes.
Speaking of which, how long are AWACS missions?
The standard time is about 11 hours, but of course there are some shorter and some longer missions, too. In fact, the length of the flight is limited only by the crew’s endurance and access to an air-to-air tanker aircraft in a given region. Of course, the crew members can rest when they need to. There is a special zone in AWACS where you can take a nap, sit in a comfortable armchair, make yourself coffee or heat up a meal.
You mentioned that you served in an international crew. How many countries have their representatives on board AWACS aircraft?
The E3A component stationing at the Geilenkirchen base is made up of representatives of 16 NATO member states. They pay fees, send their personnel to Germany, and are, in some degree, co-owners of the aircraft. The component is a part of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force. There is a big rotation there – in three, four years the composition of the component almost entirely changes. Before new soldiers start performing operational flights, they must go through training: get familiar with the procedures, with the aircraft, learn the rules of the crew’s work. More experienced specialists are often put in the role of instructors at the end of missions, but of course it is not obligatory. The component is made up of three aircraft squadrons: two combat and one training, with a total of 14 machines.
In the recent few years, three aircraft were withdrawn from service and sent to the boneyard in the Arizona desert. The decision was taken due to financial reasons, connected, i.a., with Canada’s withdrawal from the component. NATO machines are supported by six British AWACS aircraft. They are stationing at RAF Waddington and also belong to the Early Warning and Control Force.
How did you get on board AWACS?
Poland, as a member of the component, is obliged to fill over 20 posts. We have IT workers, ground technicians serving at the Geilenkirchen base. We also have some flying personnel, mainly in mission crews. I was the only Pole flying in the cockpit. I mean in this rotation, which is currently coming to an end. Earlier, we had two Polish navigators in the component. Three years ago there were only a few soldiers in Poland who met the requirements to take this post. I got the offer and I thought to myself: why not?
What were the requirements?
You need to have a good level of English, have a status of a navigator trained to the “combat ready” level [full combat readiness] and a security clearance certificate. You also have to complete a series of trainings, including SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape], which teaches you how to survive after having been shot down over enemy territory. You also need to be perfectly healthy.
You had served in naval aviation before AWACS.
Yes, I am a navigator in the Mi-14PŁ anti-submarine helicopter crew. My mother unit is the 44th Naval Air Base in Darłowo.
AWACS seems like a huge step up!
True. The Mi-14PŁ flies relatively low, mainly over the Polish Baltic Sea waters. AWACS, on the other hand, flies at the altitude of 9,000–10,000 meters, in a controlled space, where the traffic is quite heavy. On top of that, it covers impressive distances during missions. Sometimes we would literally fly over the entire territory of Europe. I didn’t have a problem with that, thanks to the experience I gained during my studies in Dęblin, where I completed a training that prepared me for the role of a navigator on board transport aircraft. It proved to be very helpful.
Do you remember your first AWACS mission?
Yes, it was a flight over Poland. Soon after that, I flew over the Canary Islands. We took part in an exercise organized by the Spanish army. We executed missions near Gran Canaria, flew over the Sahara desert.
You participated in a lot of various exercises. Which of them do you remember best?
Definitely NATO Tiger Meet, an air combat exercise for squadrons which use tiger as their emblem. In 2018 this exercise was organized in Poland for the first time. Anyway, we were generally common guests in Poland. For instance, we flew in the Air Show in Radom. However, we operated over the Turkish territory more often. It is close to Syria, where a civil war is in progress. From the perspective of an aviator, the flights over the Atlantic were very interesting. We also executed tasks north of the Arctic Circle. Sometimes, for example, we would hover for a few hours in the vicinity of Greenland.
Were there any surprises?
I quickly learned that you always need to have a passport and a credit card on you. There were many interesting situations, including those where I took off with a certainty I would eat dinner at home, thinking that there could be no surprises when you fly over Poland, and then we would get an order during the day to fly to the other end of Europe, and ultimately we would come back to our base after a week. When you serve on board this aircraft, you never know where you’re going to end up.
It is likely to be more peaceful now.
Definitely different. At first, I had runs in Geilenkirchen reaching 500 hundred hours a year. It’s over 40 missions. Last year was a bit different in this regard. I flew less, but I had a lot of work connected with operation planning. Anyway, I still went on over 100 missions. It is truly an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience. Now I am returning to the Baltic Sea, to Darłowo. I will have to recall again how it is to work on board Mi-14PŁ, but I don’t think it should take long. I also really hope that I will get a chance to serve on new helicopters.
Lt (Nav) Norbert Bąk – he served for three years as a navigator in the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force aircraft crews. His mother unit is the 44th Naval Air Base in Darłowo.
autor zdjęć: Filip Modrzejewski