The Graceful EC-121 Early Warning Star

Embed the most advanced electronic detection systems within the slick airframe of a Lockheed Super Constellation and you will have one of the most beautiful-looking aircraft that ever graced the sky: the Lockheed EC-121 Airborne Radar System. Between the early years of the 1950s thru the mid 1960s, the 121 guarded the United States coastline against a surprise enemy air incursion. It saw extensive action in Vietnam where its advanced electronic detection systems provided US force commanders with an in-depth look at the enemy’s movements, not only in the air, but also on the ground and on the seas. The 121 program had its roots at the end of the Second World War, when US military planners were facing what they thought would be an overwhelming Soviet Air Force superiority and they would need as much warning as possible to deploy their air and naval assets. Following the normal development path, the 121 entered full production mode in the early 1950s. The Warning Star, as the EC-121 was officially known – its crew knew it as the “Wily Victor” – first entered front line service with the US Navy in October 1955.

The Warning Star was designed for long and taxing patrols, thus the aircraft retained all the comforts of the airliner on which it was based. The flight deck was roomier than previous military planes, a feature well appreciated by its crew. The pilot and copilot were seated in the front of the aircraft’s cockpit; the flight engineer was seated directly behind them. The radio operator and flight navigator were seated at the end of the cockpit structure. Two rows in the middle of the fuselage were used to house 28 electronic operators who collected and directed information received from the Star’s radar arrays. One of the main reasons Lockheed selected the Constellation airframe to incorporate the most advance airborne radar system designed, was the need to locate the radome on the underside of the airframe. The Constellation had the required ground clearance because of its long undercarriage. The rear part of the aircraft was used to provide the crew with a comfort station. Four bunks and a primitive toilet were placed in the tail end of the 121. A small kitchenette was also installed there. Propelling the aircraft were four 2535-Kw Wright R3350-34 radial piston engines capable of generating 3,400 hp. The 121 could stay airborne for up to thirty five hours without refueling.

Four squadrons of the Warning Star were formed in the mid 1950s. Operating from bases in Scotland and Iceland, Warning Stars performed around-the-clock air patrols over the North Atlantic. They also operated from US Navy bases in Puerto Rico and Cuba. They saw combat action in the sky over Vietnam, offering assistance and relaying electronic information to US aircraft operating in the area. Only one EC-121 was lost during a combat operation. One 121 was shot down near North Korean territorial waters in 1969. The aircraft was lost along with its complementary crew. In the early 1970s, the US Air Force and Navy replaced its respective fleets of EC-121 Warning Stars with the first truly AWACS system platform: Boeing’s E-3. Today we can still see some Warning Stars gracing the skies above the US. All remaining 121s are privately owned and are flown at air shows all across America.

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: EC-121 Warning Star

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