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Thursday, April 1, 1999 Published at 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK

On board Nato's 'eyes in the sky'

The Awacs aircraft is the nerve centre of Nato operations

By Chief News Correspondent Kate Adie

Kosovo: Special Report
The Awacs - E-3 D Sentry - is number one target for any enemy. The Boeing-707 lords it over the fighter and bomber action below - observing, detecting, identifying.

As the airborne warning and control centre it is the flying nerve centre, and several of these surveillance planes, with their distinctive radar disks perched on top of them, are at present giving continuous cover over the Balkans.

Kate Adie reports from the deck of the E-3 D Sentry
The atmosphere on board is workmanlike, centred around a set of consoles. The plane is crammed with electronics, and the all important flicker with a mass of information.

A world of squeaks

Activity for up to 250 miles can be monitored. The technical crew sit watching intently, while listening to several radio channels. Tiny dots flit and jump - different colours designating aircraft, geographical points and airborne activity.

[ image: Flt Lt Keren Seymour manages the team on board the Awacs]
Flt Lt Keren Seymour manages the team on board the Awacs
To an amateur it is completely incomprehensible - the crew flicking buttons constantly, altering the screens, inserting information, talking in short bursts of technical language to their tech colleagues, to other aircraft , to controllers on the ground.

A couple of minutes listening to the headphones leaves the impression of a world of electronic squeaks, hisses and growls, punctuated by human voices rattling out verb-less sentences full of puzzling references to foils, knife, magic and outlaws.

The nerve centre

The TD - the tactical director - in charge of the operation hops up and down, perching on the arm of her chair, taking decisions, giving orders.

[ image: Kate Adie on board the E-3 D Sentry]
Kate Adie on board the E-3 D Sentry
Thirty one-year-old Flt Lt Keren Seymour has been on Awacs for six and a half years. She's confident and quick moving apparently carrying on several conversations at once, while immersed in the strange world of the blips on screen - real fighters and real bombers with payloads of missiles and bombs.

The electronic world has an unreal feel to it - detached from the warfare, even though it lies at its heart.

But every so often the tension rises, as a dot on the screen is designated ' hostile' rather than 'friendly' the crew co-ordinate a mass of data which is fed instantaneously to control centres, planes and mission headquarters.

Fighters and food

[ image: Hearty breakfasts start the day for the crew]
Hearty breakfasts start the day for the crew
The Awacs itself knows its value as a target, and has a swarm of fighters bristling nearby. Although most people would recognise it as a 707 passenger airliner, it pilot shifts it around the sky worth a good deal more panache than the average commercial pilot would ever dare.

In-flight catering for business people and holiday makers would be tricky with this kind of flying.

Unfazed, the RAF dishes up enormous breakfasts complete with a heap of baked beans, producers trays of cinnamon buns, and mutters about their being lots of cheese burgers later.

Even electronic war marches on its stomach.

Click here for our guide to the military hardware in the Balkans

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