JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- In Alaska, suddenly changing and often disruptive inclement weather isn't a bug, it's a feature.
In a matter of minutes, a thick pall of fog can descend on the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson airfield, making landing aircraft under visual approach impossible.
When a C-17 Globemaster III pilot with the 517th Airlift Squadron starts her initial approach under foggy conditions, she relies on cues from airfield systems and communications with the air-traffic control tower to safely guide the plane home.
Keeping these systems and communications humming are the Airmen of 3rd Operations Support Squadron's Radar, Airfield and Weather Systems (RAWS).
Though RAWS primarily supports radar and airfield systems that help pilots land and maintain communications with the tower, they also provide communications support for rescue and base operations.
Broadly, RAWS Airmen maintain airfield communications, navigation aids and weather systems.
Air Force Master Sgt. Bryant Hines, RAWS section chief, said airfield communications equipment is a blend of state-of-the-art and legacy equipment.
Air-traffic control Airmen work directly with a touch interface unit allowing them to rapidly select different frequencies. The signal travels through buried optical fiber cable at 120,000 miles per second to the base's Ground-to-Air Transmitter Receiver (GATR) site.
The GATR is a small building surrounded by lattice-work antennas. Stepping into the GATR, technologically speaking, is tantamount to taking a time machine to the 1960s. Racks of GRT-22 UHF transmitter-receivers make the facility look like a ham-radio operator's idea of paradise.
Old as the GRT-22s are, they are still up to the task of reaching out to aircrews flying Alaska's skies. Still, RAWS Airmen need to call on tried-and-true electronics maintenance know-how to keep them in top shape.
During a GRT-22 preventive maintenance inspection, Senior Airman Travis Borland, RAWS technician, cracked open the venerable device. Connecting the radio to diagnostic equipment, Borland peered into the case and gingerly prodded the vintage circuit cards, tuning the device like a mandolin.
“These older systems, they take a lot of care,” Hines said, explaining the radios’ tendency to drift in frequency range requires special care.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Spencer Torres, RAWS supervisor, said he somewhat laments the fact the old GRT-22s will soon be replaced by modern digital radios that won't require as much care. The new systems will be “black boxes” that when broken can be extracted, replaced and sent to depot for repair. Sitting on the base is a tactical-air navigation system antenna.
“The TACAN is essentially an electronic lighthouse,” Hines said. “It provides azimuth, ID and distance to the aircraft. It will say this is how far away you are from the base, and this is the heading to fly in order to get to the base.”
Supporting the 3rd OSS Weather Flight, RAWS maintains equipment such as the AN/FMQ-19 Automatic Meteorological System, which measures, collects and disseminates 10 weather parameters including temperature, cloud height, and wind speed and direction.
The diversity of equipment spread across the base with its volumes of accompanying technical orders always poses a challenge for RAWS Airmen – one they are equal to, Hines said.
“To thrive in this career field, you need self drive,” he said. “You have to want to learn the equipment. You have to want to maintain the systems constantly so you have that knowledge when there is an outage.”