AWACS Mission Crew Commander

Heroes Remember

AWACS Mission Crew Commander

Interviewer: What were your duties usually I was a mission crew commander, on the AWACS itself, there's two commanders, there's the aircraft commander. The aircraft commander is responsible for the flight safety of the aircraft and flying you from point A to point B doing aerial refueling if your doing any refueling etcetera. And basically outside of that primarily the flight safety of the aircraft. The mission crew commander because it's so big and it's so much equipment on it and so much that it actually does tactically, we have a mission crew commander that is in charge of the back end of the airplane. All the equipment, all the sensors and the communications equipment etcetera, and all the people in the back. As I said earlier we normally flew with anywhere's from a 25 to a 40 person crew, four people in the flight deck and the rest of the crew, back-enders if you will. And I was a mission crew commander in charge of the back. We had, at Tinker, we normally had six Canadians that flew in that role. And the other positions including aircraft commander, we have Canadians in all the positions that fly on the American AWACS. We had enough at one point that we did fly one mission out of Tinker with an all Canadian crew which was rather unique to do it. So we were, we had people over a period of time we got access to all the different positions on the airplane and we flew in all the different roles. Interviewer: How often did you fly? While you're at home in Tinker you were supposed to fly a minimum of once a month to stay current. Really preferred that you fly twice a month to stay current. During the Gulf War, Desert Shield and Desert Storm we were usually flying every third day. You take one day to mission plan, plan it to death exactly what time you're showing up, what time you're getting briefed, what time you're taking off, exactly when you're aircraft is showing up, what every person on the airplane is doing throughout the entire mission, whether you're doing aerial refueling and so on. You plan your mission entirely, very thoroughly for the entire mission. That, depending on the complexity of the mission, takes eight to twelve hours. Then, the American regulation, very similar to Canada, is that you must be in crew rest twelve hours before you fly. Again you're flying a four hundred million dollar airplane, you don't want to be tired when you're flying that airplane, whether you're at war, or flying in peace time, still same value. And then we'd come out of crew rest, get picked up in a Escon Village about a forty minute drive in, do our final brief, go to the airplane, that whole thing would take about two and a half hours before you'd fly. And you'd fly anywhere from a twelve to an eighteen hour mission, about a two hour debrief at the end of it another forty, forty-five minutes to get back to Escon Village, so you're looking at a about a twenty-four, twenty-five hour day. Plus your twelve hours, eight to twelve hours of mission planning you had the day before. And then you would get a day of rest and if we were allowed to go downtown, that's when we'd go downtown for a couple of hours and do some sightseeing or buy some jewelry or gold or whatever. Gold is really good in Saudi Arabia, very well known for their gold sooks, gold stores, is what they have there. And then you'd start the cycle all over again, and the only variant to that cycle would be whether you were flying your twelve hours daytime or twelve hour night time. It didn't really matter, twelve hours in an airplane is twelve hours in an airplane whether it's day or night. The mission was exactly the same and you were doing exactly the same job, so it made for an extremely long day and you get old really fast doing a twenty-four hour cycle but that's what you do. Maintain the integrity of the flight safety of the aircraft by carrying an augmented crew, that's how we would go from the twenty-five to the forty. We would carry an extra pilot, an extra flight engineer and so on, so one of our pilots could be resting, then they would take turns resting so for take off, landing and your air refueling we always had a very alert pilot sitting in the cockpit for it. We didn't have quite the same luxury for the back end of the airplane, just wasn't enough room. And occasionally we would fly with a second mission crew commander or a second senior director, but it's very seldom that we had an opportunity to do that. We would, you're there and you're awake for the twelve to eighteen hours that you're flying and stay awake and do your job. Interviewer: When you were flying these, these were not bombers at all? No, oh no, no it's a straight surveillance type of aircraft as a matter of fact we carried no armament of any kind, not even for self protection. The radome itself, the unclassified range of the radar is three hundred miles so you can sit back quite a ways from the edge of the battle area if you will. You can sit quite a ways back and have fighters between you and the enemy and you're relatively safe unless you deliberately take your aircraft into harms way or you have to get that close to be able to see where you wanna see. From the southern border, Baghdad was about 350 miles north of where we were, 350 to 400 miles, so if you wanted to see into Baghdad you were getting pretty close to the Iraqi border. If you weren't interested for that particular mission, you could stay a ways back from the Iraqi border at the time or any other conflict it's the same principle. Having that 300 mile radar is your only protection that you have on AWACS, we did not carry any weapons of any kind.

Mr. Johnston recounts his duties as an AWACS Mission Crew Commander in the Gulf War.

Alonzo Johnston

Mr. Johnston first served with the HSR cadets in Sussex, NB, and joined the regular forces before finishing high school. He joined the air force, but transferred to the navy after his trade as a data processor was closed and contracted out to civilians. In 1981, Mr. Johnston returned to the air force as an air weapons controller, commissioned from navy ranks. After a promotion, Mr. Johnston was posted in Bangor, then Oklahoma with a joint Canadian/American AWACS force. This force was eventually posted in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, where Mr. Johnston served as a mission control commander on Northern Watch and Provide Comfort missions. In 1996, Mr. Johnston was reassigned to North Bay, Ontario, where he remained until his retirement in 2002.

Meta Data
Veterans Affairs Canada
Person Interviewed:
Alonzo Johnston
War, Conflict or Mission:
Canadian Armed Forces
Air Force

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