TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida --
When Hurricane Michael closed in on Tyndall, base officials knew a direct hit would mean a double punch of 155 mph sustained winds before and after the eye of the category 4 storm. The initial damage assessments revealed what everyone feared: Tyndall suffered catastrophic damage.
Included in the long list of facilities and capabilities damaged or degraded by the storm were the base’s air traffic control and landing systems. The Radar Approach Control (RAPCON) facility suffered rain and wind damage when it lost its roof. Several air traffic control tower windows were blown out, causing tremendous damage to the equipment it housed and leaving it inoperable. This meant the airfield was unable to launch or receive aircraft and all air operations ceased.
While not operating at full capacity, Tyndall’s airfield is functioning by using a complex system of radar and radio data that is being processed and used here and at Eglin Air Force Base. Restoring these capabilities after the storm would not have been possible without the innovative thinking of a few 325th Operations Support Squadron Radar, Airfield and Weather Systems technicians.
"The creative ideas and solutions developed by our RAWS technicians epitomizes innovation in every aspect as they bring the airfield back online," said Lt. Col. Tyler Ellison, 325th OSS commander. "At times, we struggle with insufficient time and resources to accomplish the mission. Finding fiscally sound and innovative solutions are essential elements to assuring mission success."
RAWS technicians knew they had to restore air operations as quickly as possible, and devised a plan to open the airfield.
“When Hurricane Michael hit, our flightline interface equipment was essentially left dead in the water,” said Greg Hilty, 325th OSS RAWS electrical technician.
Hilty knows radar, and that was his main mission when it came to restoring airfield communications.
Working with the Air Force Engineering and Technical Services, an empty shelter was outfitted with equipment that would normally be housed in the RAPCON facility. Built to fit two controllers, they are able to establish a clear air picture by using equipment that was salvaged from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.
Since the tower’s radar capabilities were completely wiped out, they established a MSN-7 mobile tower system that sits in the middle of the flightline, and controllers are able to conduct their mission from there in a limited capacity.
The facility that housed the Tactical Air Navigation System (TACAN) lost its entire roof and sustained water damage, however the roof was repaired and the system survived. The TACAN system allows pilots to establish their in-air bearing and range.
Hilty said he knew that if he could salvage equipment that survived the storm, he could bring up radar capabilities, but he also needed radio capabilities in order to provide a full-enough air picture.
Michael Rosenthal, 325th OSS RAWS electrical technician, was the radio subject matter expert called in to work his magic.
“We needed the capability to talk to the aircraft via radio, and we were able to patch four radio systems that are here in the control tower,” Rosenthal explained.
Levels four and five of the tower, unaffected by the storm, houses radio equipment that was modified to receive local radio data and feed to Eglin. Other radio equipment originally in this facility was moved to the mobile RAPCON shelter to patch in to the equipment that provides the overall air picture.
The storm knocked down three radio towers on the far-side of the flightline, but they were able to be replaced with undamaged towers that were knocked down from another part of base. Each tower holds eight to ten antennas that had to be replaced. By using the salvaged towers and local antennas saved the Air Force about $650,000.
Once they brought limited radar and radio equipment back online, they were able to feed data to the Eglin Radar Control Facility, allowing local Tyndall controllers to oversee the Tyndall airspace from Eglin.
For now, this system works, and enables flightline operations. All of the damaged facilities and equipment will eventually be renovated or replaced with the expectation of being fully operational by May 1, 2019.
“It’s very rewarding and exciting to see the spirit of innovation thrive in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael,” Ellison said. “Our RAWS technicians have stepped up in an unprecedented way, and our OSS leadership team couldn’t ask for finer Americans to work with.”