An E-2C Hawkeye, attached to the "Screwtops" of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 123, performs a fly-by for family and friends of crew members during an air power demonstration held by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) during a three-day Tiger Cruise on December 16, 2007. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class George R. Kusner)

WASHINGTON — On night missions in the 1980s, when the beam from the E-2 Hawkeye's radar swept over the cockpit, pilots could generate electrical arcs by holding the metal base of their flashlights close to the metal paneling around them.

The arcs "would kind of light up the cockpit at night every time the radar went by," said retired Hawkeye pilot Navy Capt. Ralph Ricardo.

The Hawkeye is an early warning aircraft that is highly recognizable by the large dome-shaped radar on top of the plane. It is used to protect aircraft carriers, detect enemy aircraft or missiles, and act as an airborne command station for the Navy's fighter jets.

In flight, the Hawkeye's dome would complete a full rotation and the beam would sweep above the cockpit about every 10 seconds.

Some pilots at that time wondered what the radar was doing to them when swept past, if it could create such electrical arcs.

"Then, about halfway through my tour, all the sudden they decided to put the gold coating on all of the windows and the escape hatches," Ricardo said. After that, the pilots couldn't create the same electrical arcs, he said.

"It was obviously to keep the radar out of the cockpit," Ricardo said. "I thought … I've been flying for years without it, what's been happening to me in the meantime?"

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