Using my flashlight, I inspected the nose wheel for tire wear and the shock-absorbing gear strut for leaking hydraulic fluid. I walked under the left wing and repeated the process with the main landing gear on that side, then peered up inside the dark wheel to check the pressures in the two engine fire extinguisher bottles. Next, I stepped forward and reached up to grab the red-striped tips of the heavy gray alloy propeller blades of the number one and number two engines, checking for obvious nicks or wobble. The four big Allison engines could each produce 4,600 shaft horsepower. It was essential the props were smooth and perfectly balanced or their runaway vibration could damage the aircraft.
The Big Look radar dome, a bloated gray doughnut beneath the plane's forward belly that we called the "M&M," and a narrower canoe-shaped antenna cover farther aft, were both solidly attached. Smaller antenna mounts beneath the wings near the tail were also intact and undamaged. All told, the EP-3E bulged and bristled with sensor pods, disrupting the original airframe's streamlined exterior and producing a lumpy appearance that some aviators found ugly. But I've never seen a bad-looking airplane.
This array of external equipment revealed the plane and the squadron's mission: The acronym ARIES II stood for Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic Systems II. EP-3E's were one of America's most capable platforms for collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT). With our sensitive receivers and antennas we could look over the horizon from international airspace in support of the ships and aircraft of the Fleet to pinpoint a wide range of radar and radio emissions. This was required to develop an accurate picture of what's been called the "electronic order of battle," which might include the electromagnetic activity of surface-to-air or surface-to-surface missile systems. We also were capable of providing direct real time tactical electronic reconnaissance during combat operations to our fighters and strike aircraft so that they could better avoid threats and locate targets.
To conduct this mission successfully, the EP-3E had a crew of twenty-four, the largest of any U.S. military aircraft. Because our missions routinely last over ten hours, we carried three pilots and two flight engineers. On this Det, I was both EWAC and Mission Commander. The second pilot, or 2-P, was Lieutenant Patrick Honeck, with Jeff Vignery, the 3-P, flying his first Det to the Western Pacific. Senior Chief Nick Mellos, with over 8,000 flying hours, was one of the most veteran flight engineers in the Navy, but the other FE, Petty Officer Second Class Wendy Westbrook, was a cool hand a fast study. I knew from experience I could trust her in the seat between the two pilots. Our navigator was Lieutenant Junior Grade Regina Kauffman, who had not yet officially qualified for her position.