Depot field team braves Alaska weather

CAPE ROMANZOF, Alaska — For most of us, getting to work means waking up, showering, maybe some breakfast, then dealing with traffic on a drive of 30 minutes or less, and finally, waiting in a long line at a base entrance.

For 10 plastic fabricator inspectors in the 309th Electronics Maintenance Group, it’s anything but normal when they leave home for work.

These highly skilled workers are responsible for maintaining mission-critical radar radomes around the world.

Most often in groups of three, they make up what is known as a “depot field team” and it routinely takes them two or more days to arrive at their duty location. For example, in Alaska, most radar sites are located in remote areas that are only accessible by aircraft and can only be flown in to and out of when weather conditions permit.

Other than the continental United States, locations they routinely travel to include Hawaii, Alaska, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Azores, Diego Garcia, Greenland, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Ascension Islands and Kwajalein Atoll.

“We are normally away from home seven to ten months of the year, so much so that we have become a little family,” said Wayne Howard, depot field team lead. “I spend more time with other team members than I do with my own family.”

Howard, along with Jim Egbert and Justin Cevering, recently completed a twelve-day assignment to Cape Romanzof Long Range Radar Site, Alaska, which is home to one of fifteen long-range radars located throughout the state.

Cape Romanzof is classified as a coastal radar site and is located in a narrow valley next to the Bering Sea. It became operational in 1953 and was originally built and maintained by the U.S. Air Force as part of the Alaska Aircraft Control and Warning Radar System during the Cold War.

The site covers an area mostly 1,000 feet wide and stretches roughly 5 miles long from a rocky beach on its southwestern edge to the radar site at its farthest northeastern point.

This site and fourteen other LRRS locations are now managed and operated by Anchorage-based, ARCTEC, and depending on the radar site, are manned by one-to-four technicians at each location. Positions include a station technician, station mechanic and a services technician.

On the team’s recent visit, getting to Cape Romanzof included an early Sunday morning flight departure from Salt Lake International Airport to Seattle, Washington, and then, an additional flight to Anchorage, Alaska, followed by an overnight hotel stay.

Monday morning included several stops to ensure all necessary supplies and equipment were gathered and then properly loaded onboard a small chartered twin-engine Cessna Conquest II aircraft for a two-hour flight that crossed some of the most beautiful landscape in North America.

The flight afforded the team an opportunity to view magnificent glaciers and the highest snow-covered mountain in North America known as Denali.

Upon reaching Cape Romanzof, the small aircraft made a very tight and bouncy approach under extremely low overcast and windy conditions, to an uphill 3,955 foot long landing area on a dirt and gravel road barely wide enough to be called a runway.

The day’s tight schedule allowed the team just enough time to offload the supplies and equipment, along with personal bags, and settle into their base camp living accommodations before eating the 5 p.m. evening meal that had been prepared by ARCTEC service technician, Sean Fenderson.

Combined, the three men have 27-years’ experience as field members and during that time have amassed more than 500 assignments to radome sites worldwide.

“It isn’t a vacation when we travel to the different sites. Most people would be quite surprised to see where we go, especially in Alaska,” Egbert said.

The team’s adventures continued Tuesday morning before dawn, when station chief/technician, Max Jones, provided a white-knuckle experience driving up 2,300 feet to the top of Towak Mountain on a steep, narrow twisting road that seemed to disappear at times due to heavy fog and low-hanging clouds that were being blown around by the never-ending strong winds.

At the end of the road was the destination the team had spent the last two days to reach and now they could accomplish the precarious duties they had traveled so long and far to begin.

Duties included repairing the radomes fiberglass panels and calking along the panel seams, using a torque wrench to tighten bolts that holds the radome structure together and if weather permits, climbing and rappelling on the outside of the dome to apply a new coat of a specialized methyl methacrylate paint.

526th Electronics Maintenance Squadron director, Hal Olmstead and Bobby Gamsby, Aerospace Dominance Enabler Division, C2ISR Branch product support manager, accompanied the team to Cape Romanzof to witness and gain a better understanding of what depot field team members experience and logistic challenges faced during a site visit.

“Our maintainers are well trained and proficient in their duties; however, we need to look closely at maintenance workloads so that we can balance our work schedules with the available short Alaska weather window to accomplished all the work that is needed at the different sites,” Olmstead said.

Common during most months in Alaska are high winds, combined with cold temperatures, fog and low clouds that create a working environment that can destroy equipment and make it impossible to complete all necessary maintenance on the radomes.

“I’m very impressed with the relationships that have been formed between our team members and ARCTEC, along with many different businesses in Anchorage and the U. S. Air Force’s Transportation Management Office that together provide year-round logistics support to all the statewide locations,” Gamsby said.

After completing this challenging 12-day assignment, team members filed their temporary duty paperwork and immediately began preparations for their next assignment to what they hope will be a location that is warm and dry.