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A look inside a classified Cold War-era antenna site, now shut down

By Bonney Bowman 7:49 PM May 25, 2016
ANCHORAGE –

After 50 years monitoring radio waves, the AN/FLR 9 antenna array on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was shut down Wednesday.

The site, also known as the “elephant cage,” is a relic from the Cold War. At 40 acres in size and standing 120 feet tall, the antenna array stands mostly unchanged from when it was built in 1966.

“This is before computers. These things were built with slide rules,” said Col. Suzy Streeter, commander of the 373rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group. “It’s actually an engineering marvel if you think about it.”

elephant cage JBER

Outer view of the “Elephant Cage” – Bonney Bowman / KTVA

“It’s a little bittersweet day,” Streeter said. “It was one of those, kind of a Cold War artifact, if you will, but we’re now moving on to new technologies.”

The antenna site was decommissioned in a ceremony celebrating the thousands of airmen who have worked there. One of the last to fill that role was Senior Airman Tanner Wayne Croley.

“I feel my job is as much museum curator as it is actual maintenance on a building like this,” Croley said.

Underground tunnel carrying the signal to a separate building where it was analyzed. - Bonney Bowman / KTVA

Underground tunnel carrying the signal to a separate building where it was analyzed. – Bonney Bowman / KTVA

He knows the wires and tubes inside the site that take the radio waves and turn them into something listenable. He said it’s old technology, but it was accessible in a way modern computers aren’t.

“This place is so simple when you actually get to know it that if something goes bad, you know which part went bad and why and how to fix it, whereas a modern piece of technology, it’s a ghost in there pretty much,” Croley explained.

It’s a testament to the hard work of airmen, like Croley, who kept the antenna site running for 50 years and would keep it running for another 50, if needed.

“Just as much as aircraft in the air keep our nation safe, the men and women who operated and maintained this kept our nation safe through the years,” Streeter said.

The AN/FLR 9 is the last remaining one of its kind in the country. Streeter said she’d like it to be preserved as a piece of military history. To make that happen, a local nonprofit group will have to volunteer to work with the U.S. Air Force to preserve the antenna site, raise funds to help with maintenance and open the site to visitors five times a year.

KTVA 11′s Bonney Bowman can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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