Hercs to Mercs


First arriving in 1989, the E-6 quickly changed the game for VQ-3. For the EC-130Q Hercules operations which covered most of the Cold War era until 1991, a crew flying across the Atlantic or Pacific had to carefully plan their fuel load and route of flight to ensure they could reach their destination while still completing the orbit maneuver. Each mission was made more challenging by the Herc’s service ceiling being no higher than most of the severe weather enroute, turbulence, icing, and strong winds as well as its range being limited to about 2,700 nautical miles. Too much icing, too much headwind, or too much maneuvering around thunderstorms, put the ability to orbit and the destination at risk because of the limited fuel reserves. Further complications resulted from the then lack of long range navigation systems and mission as well as long range safety of flight communications. The challenges then were weather, fuel, navigation and communications. Further, while pressurized, the Herc had hot spots and cold spots and plenty of vibrations and noise levels that meant ICS was about the only way to communicate. The E-6 changed all of that. It brought the ability to fly from Hawaii to the West Coast and back again on a tank of fuel. It was also air refuelable. It flew above the bad weather and brought navigation and communications systems that ensured a crew knew their position with confidence always and were in continuous touch with Air Traffic Control. Crew comforts included a full galley, 8 isolated crew rest bunks, sound proofing at airline standards, and an airline head. The Merc re-opened the entire Pacific for basing. The TACAMO IV mission avionics suite, with all the TIP features and some additional capabilities were transplanted into the E-6A. Pilots learned how to fly formation in heavy jets in order to complete aerial refueling. They also proved that the big jet could orbit and get the VLF range that was required. Taking off with less than full power on all engines and not the same power setting for all engines was something unheard of in the Herc. So much thrust combined with a long swept wing made this a Merc reality. The Merc carried more fuel than a fully loaded Herc weighed! Navigators learned how to run air intercepts with the USAF tankers and Flight Engineers got increased responsibility for power settings and the entire flight deck crew was more knowledgeable and better coordinated in flying the big jet. The Merc’s impact for VQ-4 was just a powerful, opening bases and eliminating the same previous fuel, altitude, navigation, and weather limitations. The Merc also brought a new challenge - relocation of the squadrons.

Cold War End Changes the Game.

Just as the Merc enabled longer missions and safer more comfortable long flights, the end of the Cold War brought an end to Continuous Airborne Operations. TACAMO leaders inside the Pentagon were asked to restructure the community in the face of this new threat posture. The answers came by ending the use of many Air Force airborne relay aircraft and replacing them with one E-6 flying in mid-CONUS. Basing on the coasts made little sense anymore. Politics in Washington led to purchase of land and building of all new facilities for TACAMO in Oklahoma. The TACAMO Air Wing was born in 1992 in a nest well prepared for it. Coastal dets remained for alerts but everything else - training, comm centers, personnel support, maintenance, families- all moved to Oklahoma by 1994. TACAMO women by this time had served on aircraft carriers and afloat staffs and built their career experiences, enabling selection of women to command TACAMO squadrons. No longer reporting to Pacific and Atlantic unified commanders, TACAMO reported to the new joint Strategic Command. As the Wing stood up the same TACAMO leaders in the Pentagon suggested one more notch up in the roles of TACAMO – the retirement of the Strategic Command (formerly Strategic Air Command) Airborne Command Post and moving the mission to the E-6. In 1998, with the cross decking of the Battle Staff Team compartment to the E-6A, the E-6B assumed that mission and another line of alert at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. The comfortable crew rest set up in E-6 was replaced by consoles from the EC-135 Looking Glass, including ones dedicated to control of ICBMs. With a general or admiral flying on the ABNCP, TACAMO’s roles can include force direction and management in additional to relay. The TACAMO IV VLF system was updated by a modular, more solid state system and a camera to monitor the wire retraction aft of the tail. A long ‘canoe’ radome was added to the top of fuselage to accommodate the MILSTAR EHF satellite system. The E-6A’s were then called ‘slick backs’ while the Bs were called ‘hump backs’. Squadrons provided the ABNCP asset on a rotational basis while maintaining their traditional TACAMO coastal missions. New deployment schemes were devised and TACAMO Sailors gained a new place of duty at either the TACAMO alert det Offutt or at Strategic Command itself. In addition, CNO has designated Oklahoma City as a ‘homeport’ for Sailors, allowing credit for sea/shore rotation among TACAMO and related units there. As the ABNCP mission proceeded, airborne internet access via commercial satellite systems was added in 2004 along with a full ‘glass cockpit.’ The navigator’s role changed in this period to more of what the original radioman Warrant Officers had in the 60s. No longer on the flight deck, the Naval Flight Officer serves as Communications Watch Officer and this role is also now being filled by radioman-sourced Warrant Officers. The Navy responded to budget pressures by decreasing the number of ratings. The Radioman rating was merged with Internal Communications. Then the former AT, AE, AMH, AMS and other aircrew ratings were all combined in the AW rating. Training tracks have all been revised to reflect a more general rating skill set. Morse code training has become a community-unique skill that is being train inside the community. TACAMO leadership found a way to further apply some of the E-6B capability by serving in the later Iraqi Freedom era, providing an airborne comms relay support for ground forces. The Strategic Command leadership found the E-6B without the kind of robust connections and flexibility that the new era of Internet communications demanded. The E-6B Block I program was fielded in 2011, providing additional bandwidth and computer-driven connection and onboard servers. The systems include the ability to conduct a secure video teleconference and receive satellite television for worldwide situational awareness for the Battle Staff Team. The Block I Initial Operational Capability comes up in 2014 and the system is evolving still. New bandwidth sources and ways of moving messages, voice, data, and even video are coming. With the Mercs now over 20 years old, studies are underway to see what that means to the future. Engagement has begun with the other strategic communications aircraft - the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC) formerly NEACP community. Both jets are on alert together at Offutt and joint development of some common systems is currently being explored. The E-4 carries a version of the TACAMO IV VLF/LF comm transmit system.

Don’t Try This In Your Merc!

As we look over how TACAMO has changed over the decades, here are some interesting differences. In the early days with roll on/roll off comm vans, the Hercs carried all cargo at times. More than one small car and several small boats have been moved on a TACAMO Herc. Even after TACAMO III came along untold furniture, grandfather clocks, papa-san chairs, fresh fruits and flowers, English butter and adult beverages from all over the world were hauled. Crews spent weeks on the road, with short alert periods spread out during a trip, so they made 4 or 5 good ‘shopping’ and liberty stops. One TACAMO Herc in the late 80’s made a trip to NAS Whiting Field where pilots are trained to help recruit the best for TACAMO. At 6,000 feet long, Whiting is a place, like many other bases, that the E-6 just cannot go. As an airliner-derivative, the E-6 has a pressurized ‘lower lobe’ compartment underneath the main deck. Here reside a good bit of avionics and storage compartments for luggage, spares, and not much else. Crews still find a way to carry home the goodies they find on deployment. Merc crews don’t see many deployment stops and they spend days on alert. They experience the pressures of Continuous Airborne Operations only rarely in exercise periods. When 9/11 happened, they were airborne in an exercise scenario and they performed in that real attack on America scenario with distinction. Today’s TACAMO crew has different pressures and more complex systems to work with, in addition to having joint crews when flying the ABNCP mission. They are still inventing ways to more effectively operate the systems they are given and working with developers to make them even better. This hasn’t changed from the beginning. TACAMO - Can Do!

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