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Radar site techs: First line of defense 24/7, 365

  • Published
  • By Capt. Anastasia Wasem
  • 11th Air Force Public Affairs
At the narrowest part of the Bering Strait, where the North American and Asian land masses meet in a virtually uninhabited area, sits a vital, yet relatively unknown, asset that is the first line of homeland defense for the United States and Canada -- the Tin City Long Range Radar Site.

The Tin City LRRS, which houses a handful of permanent workers and 14 additional radar sites across the rugged terrain of Alaska, scans the airspace above 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, searching for potential threats. Together with the men and women of the Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, the team at the Tin City LRRS protects the nation's northern and western borders.

"It really is a team effort," said Lt. Gen. Russ Handy, the 11th Air Force commander. "The majority of the work is done by great civilians (who) have been an important part of our national defense for a long time, yet many don't know about."

One of those civilians is Vance Spaulding, the Tin City LRRS station chief and heavy equipment mechanic. Spaulding ensures the radar site stays up and running and is in charge of the safety and security of the site as well as all logistics. He has worked at these remote radar sites for 13 years, consistently working a routine of two months at the site and one month at home.

"The hardest part is being away from (my family)," Spaulding said. "The biggest challenges are just being away from family, making decisions while away and dealing with things that come up."

Life is secluded for the men and women who work at these sites. Tin City LRRS is only accessible by boat or plane, as it sits at the top of a high coastal peak.

"It's close knit; you're very isolated, and you're here with people (who) are like a family," said Jerry Pyle, the station technician. "We get together and have movie nights and go hiking, hunting, fishing and activities like that."

During the winters, the group’s outdoor adventures are limited due to the potentially perilous conditions.

"The winter activities are pretty much curtailed, because the weather is so bad -- it's dangerously bad," Spaulding said. "I could go out on my snow machine, and if the wind picks up to 100 miles per hour, I'm laying down somewhere. Winds have been clocked at 180 miles per hour here."

The 15 radar sites across Alaska, plus many deactivated sites, have undergone numerous changes since they were built in the 1950's. During the 1970's, each site had about 135 people assigned to them, most of whom were U.S. Air Force personnel. But with technological advancements, that number has steadily decreasing to the handful of technicians seen at most sites today.