With the advent of thermonuclear weapons, the national security of the United States has depended greatly upon the Strategic Air Command’s lead over the Soviet’s ability to deliver these weapons to vital targets.

Recently, this lead was seriously diminished as the Russians began replacing their outmoded B-29 type bombers with new high speed, long range weapons carriers comparable to those used by the U.S. Air Force.

Realizing the increasing threat of Russian strategic airpower, the United States has been striving to improve its air defenses, especially the radar detection system upon which it relies for vital advance warning of an enemy attack.

The detection system has been extended by building chains of far-flung radar sites, ranging from the Pinetree radar line just north of the U.S.-Canadian border to the Distant Early Warning Line near the Arctic Circle. At sea, picket ships patrol specific areas n the North Atlantic and Pacific and ‘Texas Towers,’ or radar island, have been built on the coastal shelf off the eastern seaboard.

Complementing this warning system is the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing.

RC-121 super Constellations, ‘flying radar stations’ built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, are utilized by the wing for its operations. The plane flies at a speed exceeding 285 miles per hour. Its maximum range exceeds 5,000 statute miles and it can remain aloft over 20 hours.

The RC-121's are four engine Super Constellations, equipped with five and one-half tons of radio and radar equipment. Operated by specially trained crews of Air Force technicians several hundred miles at sea, these airplanes extend the Air Force Coastal Detection Zones to provide early warning of any possible attack on the United States.

The RC-121 airborne radar search station and fighter-interceptor control center carries a maximum crew of 31 men, operates at altitudes up to 25,000 feet and flies at speeds up to 300 miles per hour. Since they remain on patrol over the ocean for extreme lengths of time, RC-121's are equipped with tip tanks which enable them to cover thousands of miles without refueling.

Initially, control of the fighter is the responsibility of the costal radar station. When it moves into the range of the RC-121's radar, the airborne Intercept Director aboard the RC-121 assumes control of the fighter. On the radar screen, the Director charts the fighter’s course and position. He speaks to the fighter pilot constantly by voice radio, giving him new ranges and courses at ten-second intervals, and instruct shim as to altitude and speed of approach of the target.

Rapidly the target and fighter close, until the fighter pilot reports a ‘Tallyho,’ the word he uses to say he has sighted the target visually.

If the ‘Bogey’ is an enemy, the fighter engages it in battle; if the aircraft is friendly, identification information is relayed to the appropriate channels on ground and disciplinary action is taken against the pilot of the ‘Bogey.’

From takeoff to landing, the fighter-pilot is constantly under vigilance and control of radar personnel, either through the airborne or ground stations. Repeated checks are made of the fighter’s fuel supply and Air-Sea rescue units are alerted when the jet fighter reaches the shoreline, to be available immediately in case of an emergency occurring over water.

Thus, constant teamwork between both the fighter pilot and the airborne director is essential for the success of their respective missions. The Director is responsible for guiding the fighter to its prey and returning him to his home base before his fuel supply is depleted.

Before the airborne Director-Fighter team can go into action, every member of the numerous airborne crews must be thoroughly ‘checked out’ with the new RC-121 aircraft and equipment it carries. The Radar Controllers, Operators and Technicians can make use of their skills only when the Pilots, navigators, Engineers, and Radio Operators all know completely their jobs and responsibilities. This applies especially to the pilots designated as Aircraft Commanders who shoulder the responsibility for the safety of the aircraft and crew from the preflight briefing to the postflight physical conditioning exercises.

The 551st AEW&Con Wing was organized on October 1, 1954 as a provisional unit. On December 18, 1954 it was designated as the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing and assigned to the 8th Air Division under the Western Air Defense Force.

Much of its early activity was devoted to training. By the fall of 1956 the wing was ready to assume its mission responsibilities and it became fully operational in October 1956.

On July 1, 1957 the wing was transferred from the deactivated 8th Air Division to Eastern Air Defense Force. Also on this date it became the base unit at Otis, thus assuming the task of giving support to some 57 units and 19,000 people.

Source: The 1957 year book of the 551st AEW&C Wing at Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts


NOTE: The above article describes the 551ST AEW&C Wing and its mission utilizing the RC-121D Super Constellation. The Wing flew the RC-121D model Super Constellations until approximately the early part of 1963 when they was replaced by the EC-121H model. The three aircraft from the 551st Wing that later ditched in the Atlantic were the EC-121H model.