By Joshua Slocum / The News & Advance
Aug 4, 2002
If you`re wondering if anything has changed at the Federal Aviation Administration`s radar base on Apple Orchard Mountain since the Sept. 11 attacks, it has. Secrecy is back in fashion.
The former Air Force radar base - used only to monitor civilian flight traffic since 1975 - is locked up tighter than it was during its Cold War years. Want a tour to learn how modern radar equipment works, or just to peek up close at the giant golf ball on the ridge top separating Bedford from Botetourt County?
"Well, we could probably get someone to take you up there so you could take a picture, but I doubt we can let you into the facility," said Arlene Salik of the FAA`s public affairs office in New York.
Considering that Air Force officials used to give tours to the public even when the base was full of top-secret military equipment, it`s unclear why the civilian station is off-limits now.
The News & Advance has an extensive archive on the facility dating back to the 1950s. The stories aren`t packed with details about the installation, and the writing is a little more deferential to the government than most contemporary press accounts. But reporters and the public did have access, however limited, to the facility during an era when many were so concerned about Russian missiles they fantasized about installing fallout shelters under their Levittown-style tract houses.
"I know the only thing that`s different up there since we retired is a (battery back-up) system to power the radar until the generator kicks in," said Dennis Gibbs, 68, a former FAA technician who retired from the Apple Orchard Mountain base in 1989.
The Air Force pulled out of the installation entirely in 1975. Since then, the lone "radome" - the fiberglass dome that protects the rotating radar antenna from winds that can reach 100 knots on the mountain - has been used solely by the FAA. The facility is one of several around Virginia that monitor the flight paths of commercial and private planes.
Gibbs` friend and coworker, Tom Fuller, 69, who also retired in 1989, said the FAA men who worked there during the Cold War wondered even then why the facility was treated with so much secrecy. The antenna was just not close enough to anywhere important to make a difference in a crisis, Fuller said.
"We always wondered that back then during the Cuban Missile Crisis," he said. "See, this system is 150 miles from the Atlantic coast - by the time you picked up a missile coming in it would have hit whatever it was aimed at."
He added, "There`s nothing up there now that requires a security clearance."
The Air Force base opened in 1955, when frozen TV dinners were new, Dynaflow automatic transmissions were a luxury feature, and most people truly believed chemicals brought better living. The three antennas, with their 200-mile tracking radius, monitored the airspace and sent the data to a processing center in Leesburg, as they do now.
In those days, the FAA and the Air Force shared space.
"We had to have the same clearances as the military," said Gibbs, turning to Fuller as he recalled the base`s layout. "There were certain areas you had to have top-secret clearances for."
Fuller said the bulky, cumbersome, vacuum-tubed computers were housed under a metal Quonset hut, which was protected by a 100-foot-long concrete bomb shelter.
"That was to protect the computer from intercontinental ballistic missiles from Cuba," Fuller said.
The equipment required a 24-hour staff to maintain it. In its hey-day, Apple Orchard Mountain had dormitories, a commissary, a bowling alley and a cinema to keep the men entertained.
As solid-state electronics replaced vacuum tubes, there was less of a need to keep a staff on the mountain around the clock.
"What they`ve got up there now is a lot more reliable than when we were up there," said Gibbs. "There were three or four rows of computer equipment down a 100-foot line."
He pointed to Fuller`s fireplace.
"The FAA replaced that with a new processor the size of a double freezer," Gibbs said.
He held his hands about 6 inches apart.
"Now it could probably fit in a drawer," he said.
Dick Troxel, who retired from the FAA in 1997, said power outages were a way of life during his tenure on Apple Orchard Mountain.
"Oh yeah, sometimes the whole system would go dead," he said. "Probably the single biggest problem was power interruptions."
The base has always run off commercial power, which, however reliable it might be, doesn`t always live up to the needs of sensitive electronics. An interruption lasting just milliseconds, said Fuller, can knock the equipment out of phase.
Then Troxel, Fuller, Gibbs, or one of their coworkers would have to sync all the machinery when the diesel generator powered up to take over. The base now has a system similar to the back-up batteries for home computers, which maintain a constant current until generators take over.
There were many times when one of the men had to get out of bed in the middle of the night and make his way up the nearly mile-high mountain to fix the trouble.
"Now that`s the nice thing, I can sit here in the winter time and look at that dome and not worry about going up there at 11 o`clock at night," Fuller said, gesturing in the direction of Apple Orchard Mountain.
Over time, technicians were needed only 16 hours a day. Then it was only eight hours a day, five days a week, said Troxel.
"Anytime the (the Leesburg center) said they may be losing targets in this area or that area, probably the first place we`d go to look was that (radar scope )display and see if we had what we were supposed to have," Troxel said.
Now, said Troxel, almost every function at the base can be remotely controlled and the system can run without human intervention.
Don Poff of the FAA in Roanoke said the agency now maintains an eight-hour-a-day, five- or six-day-a-week schedule on the mountain.
Other sources close to the FAA, who asked not to be named, said the coverage has been much thinner than that for years because the agency has not been training and rehiring technicians fast enough to replace those who leave.
According to Fuller and Gibbs, there were some cloak-and-dagger shenanigans at the base during the military years.
"See, when we were up there, the military was always trying to catch us on security violations," Gibbs said.
What you saw when you entered certain rooms had to stay in your head.
"One time this guy knocked on the door, and I let him in," Gibbs said, chuckling. "They had a field day with me! Well, the only problem was, I knew the guy from when I was in the military and I knew he was OK."
Fuller and Gibbs said there were never any "missile scares" on the mountain. About the most exciting thing that ever happened, Fuller said, was when they spotted an incredibly fast-moving blip on their maintenance scope in the early 1960s.
"One night when the Air Force was still there, one of the guys called over and said `if you wanna see something interesting, look at your scope,`" Fuller said. "Now, normally, when something (a plane) shows up, it moves about one eighth of an inch across the screen (each time the antenna rotates). This sucker was jumping at a half an inch!"
It was only an Unidentified Flying Object until Fuller found out later that a new type of military spy jet had been performing a cross-continent speed test that night.
Gibbs said he used to drive up to the base occasionally after his retirement just to see what was going on. But since Sept. 11, he said, he`d never go up there without calling the FAA first.
There are no armed guards at the station, and anyone who drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway can get a good view of the fiberglass golf ball on the ridge.
You can also do what Tom Fuller does - pull out a pair of binoculars and look due north from the city of Bedford. If your eyesight is sharp, you can just make out the dome even on a hazy day.