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E-9A Widget, one of a kind

An E-9A Widget sits in hangar 5 Mar. 3 at the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. This Widget is one of two in the Department of Defense inventory, and both of which are stationed at Tyndall. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dustin Mullen/Released)

An E-9A Widget sits in hangar 5 Mar. 3 at the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. This Widget is one of two in the Department of Defense inventory, and both of which are stationed at Tyndall. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dustin Mullen/Released)

An E-9A Widget sits on the flight line in front of hangar 5 Mar. 3 at the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. The Widget is a modified version of the Bombardier Dash-8, formerly Canadian De Havilland. The modified civilian Dash-8 was brought into service in 1988 and is assigned to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dustin Mullen/Released)

An E-9A Widget sits on the flight line in front of hangar 5 Mar. 3 at the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. The Widget is a modified version of the Bombardier Dash-8, formerly Canadian De Havilland. The modified civilian Dash-8 was brought into service in 1988 and is assigned to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dustin Mullen/Released)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - -- The mission of the Air Force is like a highly complex machine. Each piece of the machine is vital to it operating successfully. The E-9A Widget is a very small, yet highly important piece to that machine.

"It is the U.S. Air Force's only dedicated sea-surveillance, telemetry relay and UHF radio relay platform," said Maj. Anthony Carson, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron E-9A Widget director of operations. "It's assignment to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, and the support it provides the Weapon System Evaluation Program Combat ARCHER air-to-air mission, is essential for live-fire weapons testing in the airspace over the Gulf of Mexico.  It provides a cost-effective solution to enhancing safety associated with live-fire weapons testing."

There are only two E-9A Widgets in the Department of Defense inventory, both stationed at Tyndall with the 82nd ATRS. There are currently only seven pilots and five radar operators assigned to the aircraft.

"The unique mission supports numerous DoD customers, and ultimately it supports the test and development of weapon systems we place in the hands of warfighters," Carson said. "I can't think of a better mission, except maybe employing those same weapons against our enemies."

The Widget is a modified version of the Bombardier Dash-8, formerly Canadian De Havilland. The modified civilian Dash-8 was brought into service in 1988 to the 53rd WEG.

Modified with AN/APS-143(V) -1 Airborne Sea Surveillance Radar to detect objects in the Gulf of Mexico, the aircraft can detect a person in a life raft up to 25 miles away in the water. It downlinks this telemetry data to the range safety officer who determines the shoot area for live-fire activity, according to the Air Force fact sheet.

Most of the maintenance for the aircraft is also performed here by dedicated contractors.

"The maintainers for this aircraft are highly specialized," said Carson. "Our contractors and mission systems technicians are authorized to perform all required day-to-day maintenance on the E-9A aircraft, radar, and telemetry system.  Heavy maintenance such as aircraft paint, engine overhaul and other extensive tasks, are sent off-site when required."

Major Carson has had over five years of flying experience in the Widget and has logged approximately 1,400 hours.

"The E-9A is a great plane to fly," Cason said. "It's very reliable with an approximate 99 percent mission completion rate.  The small E-9A community is like a family; the pilots, mission crew, maintainers, and all our support personnel are first class.  It is a multi-faceted niche platform that excels at what it was designed for."