A dedicated crew keeps remote radar site running
In Alaska’s most remote corners, 15 Long Range Radar Sites (LRRS) scan the skies looking for threats. It takes a small, but dedicated force to keep these Cold War-era sites up and running.
“We’re only 11 pilots here that do this particular job.”
Those 11 pilots fly two C12 planes to all the radar sites on a regular basis. It’s a unique mission that sends them all over the state in some of the most challenging conditions, carrying personnel and supplies.
“You’re not relying on instruments as much. You’re just relying on your basic pilotage instincts,” said C12 pilot Cpt. David Blessinger.
Some of the sites, like , are in the mountains, which means runways at elevation. The one at Sparrevohn is at about 1,600 feet, is shorter than normal and comes with a risky approach.
“Once you cross that ridge line, you’re committed to land because there’s not going around,” said Blessinger. “You see that mountain behind the runway and it becomes very obvious, very quick that you’re not going to be able to go around out of that landing if, for whatever reason, you’re not in a good position.”
The Sparrevohn LRRS was built in 1951 as part of a network of radars across the state.
“From a safety perspective, and from a security perspective, we want to know who’s flying over America’s skies,” said Ltc. Edward Soto, deputy commander of the PACAF Regional Support Center.
Sparrevohn is in the southern part of the Alaska Range. It sits at the top of a mountain peak at 3,400 feet in elevation. The nearest village is 30 miles away. It’s like a military base in miniature.
“We can see for a very long distance and it makes a perfect place for a radar,” said Soto. “There’s people that live and work here on a continual basis. They have to eat. They need fuel. They need water. They need all those things to keep this radar up and running.”
For the 4-man crew who lives there, there’s no shortage of things to do. They work in shifts: usually two months on, one month off, but sometimes longer.
“You got something to do every minute of the day, never any down time,” said station mechanic Shane Wingenbach.
“You gotta like the people you work with and we have a really good crew out here,” said services technician Ivan Rinck.
Wingenbach and Rinck say they like being so remote. They hunt, fish and trap while exploring the area on snowmachines and four-wheelers. But they’re a long way from their families, and say that’s the hardest part.
“It’s tough being away that long,” said Wingenbach. “It’s a long time.”
“They supply us with internet so we can video-chat with home. So, it’s not so bad but it can be a little difficult to be out here for two or three months at a time,” said Rinck.
The team knows they’re part of the bigger mission. The radars are the first line of defense. The radars pick up potentially hostile planes an average of 10 times every year. The F-22s at JBER then scramble to intercept the planes.
“It’s nice to know that you’re doing something out here that’s (sic), you’re not military, but you feel that part of it,” said Wingenbach.
Blessinger says the C12 pilots feel the same way about their part of the radar mission.
“We’re a small part of that, but we’re also a key part of these sites — to enable these sites to continue to run,” he said.