Plugging the Gaps in Our First Line of Defense

Aug. 1, 1959

The date was May 17, 1958, the time between 10 and 11 a.m., the place Rome Air Force Depot (now Rome Air Materiel Area), Rome, N.Y. An analysis of teletype messages requesting maintenance, which was beyond the capability of the operating organization showed the following:

Teletypes out of order at Torrejon, Spain; Sembach, Germany; Philippine Islands; Hawaii; and Alaska. Radars out of order at Boise, Idaho; Irving, Tex.; Tampa, Fla.; and Thule, Greenland. Ground Control Approach (GCA) systems out of order at Andrews AFB, Md.; Guam; Alaska; Mobile, Ala., Grand Forks, N.D.; and Burtonwood, England. Communications equipment out of order at Patrick AFB, Fla.; Salem, Ore.; Westerly, R.I.; Japan; Alaska; France; and French Morocco. Peaking of equipment or integration of SAGE required at Philadelphia, Pa.; Austin, Tex.; Washington, D.C.; and Charleston, S.C.

These were the types of maintenance problems being wired into Rome Air Force Depot prior to July 1, 1958. Each of them required immediate emergency maintenance assistance, and each of them was identified by a mission priority, which demanded the quickest possible reaction time.

The World War II repair concept, “repair by replacement,” was no longer possible because of the sharply reduced postwar “buy” program. There were two obvious answers to the problem — buy more replacement items or send highly specialized and skilled Air Force civilian technicians to perform the necessary maintenance on site.

Economy and the long lead tie entailed in any buy program of the scope required dictated that on-site maintenance was the only possible solution. But how do you simultaneously send highly skilled technicians with the necessary replacement parts, tools, test equipment, and technical data to cover all the maintenance requirements stated in the teletype analysis above

A study group at Rome Air Force Depot evolved a plan that would produce the desired results, wrote an implementing publication (TO 0-25-128), and obtained the sanction of Headquarters, Air Materiel Command, and the US Air Force to begin operation on July 1, 1958.

The basic philosophy of the plan recognized that mobile teams for manned aircraft support had proved satisfactory, and that theory was applied to depot-level support for ground communications-electronics equipment. Five mobile facilities — each with the capability of providing complete on-site depot-level support, and each responsible for fulfilling all depot-level requirements in a designated area — were established.

To simplify supply procedure, the plan called for an Air Force supply inventory of approximately 25,000 items to enable each activity to provide its own supply support. The repair and return concept or “maintenance-to-maintenance” principle is the backbone of this supply system. A defective “black box” is replaced with a workable one; the defective one is later repaired in the home workshop and returned to the “ready-for-use” stock. This in itself curtails the need for buying more replacement items.

Since these mobile facilities were to perform depot-level maintenance they were appropriately name Mobile Depot Activities, with the focal point for the program located within the Directorate of Maintenance Engineering at Rome Air Materiel Area, Griffiss AFB, Rome, N.Y.

It is the responsibility of this “home office,” staffed by nine people, to ensure accomplishment of the air Force ground communications — electronics maintenance support and to act as the central coordinator and manager of the MDA program.

To accomplish this mission, the world was divided into five geographical areas with an MDA established in each area.

The Eastern MDA is at Rome Air Materiel Area and covers a twenty-four-state area in the eastern portion of the United States, the District of Columbia, the three Texas Towers in the Atlantic Ocean, an area stretching northeast as far as and including Greenland and Iceland, and also southeast to include Puerto Rico, the Canal Zone, and Bermuda. This MDA services 421 installations and employs 336 people. Eastern MDA has detachments located at Wright-Patterson, Westover, Warner-Robins, Brookley, and Keesler Air Force Bases.

The Central MDA is at Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area, Tinker AFB, Okla., and covers a sixteen-state area in the central portion of the country, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border and the territory east of the Rockies and west of the Mississippi with the exception of Illinois, Wisconsin, and the northern peninsula of Michigan. Central services 297 installations, employs 304 people, and has detachments at Carswell, Barksdale, Offutt, and Chanute air Force Bases.

Western MDA is at Sacramento Air Materiel Area, McClellan AFB, Calif., and covers an eight-state area in the western portion of the United States, as well as the new states of Alaska and Hawaii. Western services 237 facilities, employs 451 personnel, and has detachments at Mira Loma, Calif., Clearfield, Utah; Vandenberg AFB, Calif.; Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; and Hickam AFB, Hawaii.

Pacific MDA is at Tachikawa Air Force Base in Japan, covers all of the Pacific area, and employs 315 people. Their area includes Okinawa, Guam, Korea, Saipan, Wake Island, and in fact, most of the islands in the Pacific except those west of Wake.

European MDA is at Chateauroux, France, and Covers Germany, France, Spain, parts of India and Pakistan, parts of Africa, and the Azores. A decision was made by USAF that these areas would be taken care of by contractual support with the work done under MDA policies and principles. The equipment repaired and maintained by these MDA people comprises the first line of defense for the United States against a surprise attack by an enemy. The communications-electronics systems installed throughout the free world are the “eyes, ears, and voice” of the electronic age and are located at Air Force bases, aircraft and warning sites, gap fillers, Airways and Air Communications Service installations, and National Guard facilities.

Anytime the “eyes (radar), ears (radio), or voice (telephone or teletype)” are off the air, there is a gap in our first line of defense, which must be repaired within a minimum of time.

Equipped with maintenance parts, replacement components, tools, and test equipment, the MDA people are always on call to respond to any emergency request and use many means of transportation to reach the site.

To reach the Texas Towers the men usually go by helicopter, but in bad weather it is necessary to take a slow boat, best described as an ocean-going tug, which sometimes takes as long as twenty-two hours to make the sixty- to one-hundred-and-twenty-mile trip.

Helicopters are also used to airlift highly sensitive electronic supplies to such high-up sites as the one atop Santiago Peak. Time required for the chopper to deliver the equipment is about forty-five minutes as compared with about a seven-hour trip by truck over a torturous, climbing road, with the gears usually a little the worse for wear.

At a place called Unalakleet on Norton Sound in Alaska, a tramway affords the MDA men and their equipment the only access to an AC&W site. Airborne in their mobile deepfreezers, the technicians tremblingly join their electronic supplies in a clanking, icy climb over Unalakleet’s snow-clad slopes.

While supporting sites in Alaska isn’t too troublesome, none of it is easy. During winter months you get the stuff and the men there by airlift (landing on ice-coated runways), by tramway, or you simply go to the dogs — literally speaking, that is. As a matter of could, hard fact, much of the support in the polar region is provided by dog sled and teams.

But Unalakleet doesn’t have a monopoly on ice-clad slopes. Many can also be found stateside. A seven-ton semi-trailer was used last fall on an emergency repair job at an Air Force station in Vermont. By the time the job was completed, the winter snows had already set in and it was impossible to get the van down the mountain. A tractor dispatched for that purpose encountered difficulty descending, even without the van. Some seven or eight weeks later, a temporary thaw enabled a Vermont trucking firm to get the van down the mountain.

On one trip the men may encounter ice and snow, while on their next trip it may be a sandstorm, or fifty- to seventy-five-mph winds, or the sunny climes of Bermuda.

Whether they must battle the whistling, whining williwaws in the Aleutians, the ice and snow in the polar regions, the swamps and insects of the Pacific islands, or the incline of steep mountain sides, the MDA men continue with their support job.

While some of the support is emergency in nature, the men don’t sit around waiting for calls. They have a regular schedule of performing pre-depot-level maintenance inspections, coordination schedules, and performing regularly scheduled overhauls. If they are at “home” for a few days, they can be found doing modification or repair work on ground-electronics equipment.

During any given month, it is estimated that the stateside-based MDA personnel travel about 125,000 miles.

In the nine months the MDA program has been in operation it has developed a planned schedule maintenance which has increased equipment-operating effectiveness, reduced off-air time, made maximum use of organizational and field maintenance personnel, shortened repair cycle time, and reduced the number of components required. At the same time it has made available serviceable replacement components on specified equipment, provided around-the-clock, on-call technical assistance and emergency maintenance support, increased support of “first-line” equipment by Air Force capability, and accomplished all this with but a minimum of maintenance facilities and a maximum of satisfied customers.

The trademark of the MDA man is dedication to his job of serving his customer, wherever he may be.

Maj. Gen. Clyde H. Mitchell is Commander of Rome Air Materiel Area, Griffiss AFB, N.Y. Part of Air Materiel Command, ROAMA is responsible for the procurement, supply, installation, and maintenance of ground communications-electronics equipment for the entire US Air Force. Before his present assignment, General Mitchell served in various procurement and production assignments at Hq. AMC, Wright-Patterson AFB. Born in 1905, he was commissioned and won his wings in 1929, is now a Command Pilot.