Airmen piece together Wake Island connectivity puzzle

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Chris Vadnais
  • Air Force Print News
Situated about 2,300 miles west of Honolulu and 2,000 miles southeast of Tokyo, Wake Island sits alone in the Pacific Ocean. In a place this remote, and this small -- its three coral islets contain a total land area of about 3 square miles -- communication with the outside world is imperative.

When Super Typhoon Loke touched down on the atoll Aug. 31, it did more than damage Wake Island's buildings and vegetation; it toppled huge satellite dishes, tore appliances from their fixtures and ripped away cables, destroying telephone, network, and satellite communication links.

Two experts from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, are here to see if those links can be restored, and if so, at what cost.

"This place is a disaster. A lot of the buildings have been severely damaged," said network specialist Chod Hill.

Hill, who works for the 15th Communications Squadron, arrived with Tech. Sgt. Josh Gartner, also of 15th COMM, and several civil engineers on one of Hickam's C-17 Globemaster IIIs on Sept. 13.

Their charge is to estimate the cost of repairs to the communications system, but they've set their sights a bit higher. Despite the destruction, Hill said he hopes to use the existing pieces to help put the connectivity puzzle back together.

"We've actually been very fortunate from a communications standpoint that a lot of our equipment has not taken as much damage as it could have," said Hill. "So far it looks like we may have only lost a few PCs. The networking infrastructure itself looks pretty solid," he said.

The ultimate equipment test will come when the power grid is repaired. When electricity is restored to the Base Operations area, Hill and Gartner can determine the extent of the damage to the Satellite Communications (SATCOM) system.

"SATCOM is basically Wake Island's lifeline to the outside world," said Sergeant Gartner. "It provides telephone, Internet, and other communications links," he said.

Even without SATCOM, the 21 people deployed from Hickam aren't completely disconnected. Hill and Gartner brought Iridium satellite telephones and a computer with satellite data transfer capability. Using these tools, on-scene leadership can file daily situation reports, place and confirm supply orders, and eventually request airlift back home.

Because they're communications experts, Hill and Gartner were also asked to gather information on other equipment on the island. For example, they were asked to look at the VORTAC, a large beacon-like instrument used in air traffic navigation. They found it, but not where it was supposed to be.

"This right here," said Sergeant Gartner, pointing to a white metal cylinder on the ground, about twelve feet long and four feet in diameter, "...used to be over there, on top of that building." He pointed to a small concrete structure about 125 yards away. The cylinder had cracked wide open, and several metal spines, once neatly packed inside the cylinder, rested in a crooked pile nearby. "Needless to say, it's going to have to be replaced," he said.

Telephones and access to the Internet are luxuries most of us have come to expect. Out in the middle of the Pacific, these things take on a more significant importance. Hill and Gartner understand this.

"Ideally, we'll get the SATCOM back up and be able to get these guys communicating with the rest of the world pretty quickly," said Hill. "That's the goal."