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Military Electronics, Part I.
After Marine Corps Boot Camp at MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) San Diego, California, and ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) at Camp San Onofre, California, I was assigned to Comm-Elect (Communications and Electronics) Schools Battalion at MCRD San Diego. I was a little disappointed because I had joined the Marine Corps to see the world, and that wasnít going to happen for at least a year, unless I screwed up academically, several times. The Marine Corps was still recovering from the effects of the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam and the near disaster at Hue City, so Marines were being pushed up or down the pipe as fast as training permitted.
I was very lucky, I think, to have spent my whole time in Comm-Elect schools in night school. The training cycle ran 24 hours a day, broken up into three sections. The school itself was also broken up into three sections. When I arrived at Comm-Elect schools I was a Private E-1, with MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) 2800, which was Basic Electronics person. My final MOS would be decided by how well I did in school.
I did pretty well in the Basic Electronics Course and fairly well in the Radio Fundamentals Course, which qualified me to go to Air Radio Repair Course. For some reason I was selected to be the Class NCO for my class. I think I was a LCpl then (E-3, Lance Corporal). I had no idea what the job involved, which led to some interesting incidents, and I didnít do well academically (possibly too much midnight body surfing.) So I was relieved as Class NCO at a formal ceremony. I still cringe at the thought. It was a very bad moment for me.
I donít remember all of the equipment that we were trained on, but I do remember the AN/TYA-11 van (remember this) and the AN/ARC-27 radio. I should mention that the military, for a long time, bought almost all of their radios from Collins Radio, now Rockwell Collins. The TYA-11 van was a nightmare. The AN/ARC-27 was a very sophisticated UHF radio that was designed to be used in aircraft. The face of the radio was about a foot on a side and it was more than two feet deep. The case was painted with black crinkle paint. It was heavy and I donít think it used any transistors. As I remember it, the radio was all electron tubes. (As add-on training a year later I was trained to repair the transistorized version of the ARC-27, called the ARC-51. It certainly was a lot smaller and lighter.)
On graduation from school six of us were assigned to duty at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Beaufort, South Carolina. We were all assigned to a MACS (Marine Air Control Squadron) unit. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they didnít need six new repairmen with absolutely no experience. So they kept three (Phil Forbes, my replacement as Class NCO, Terry Cheek and John Batelle, the class ace (Highest average for the course) and Mike Carroll and I were FAPed out to station.
FAP stands for Fleet Augmentation Program. The Marine Corps has always maintained that their teeth are longer than their tail (ratio of combat troops to support troops), but that leaves various miscellaneous duties empty, and they have to be filled from somewhere. As it happened, Station Comm-Elect was short of people. I really donít think that we were sent there as a favor to us, but it worked out very interestingly for me.
Station Comm-Elect was responsible for at least four things: the receiver site used to control real aircraft, the transmitter site, used to control real aircraft, the tower, used to control real aircraft on the ground, and a High Frequency beacon a few miles from one end of the runway that operated at some improbably low frequency that involved the number 390.
Mike Carroll and I were assigned to the transmitter site, which I should have mentioned was on the opposite side of a very long runway from the receiver site. Naturally, driving across the runway is usually a bad idea. At the time I think that the planes that used the runway were predominantly F-4 Phantoms. They appear rapidly and didnít turn well at landing speeds.
Station Comm-Elect, in retrospect, was not made up from the sharpest knives in the drawer. I donít understand why the Marine Corps thought that we would be less of a problem in the one place on post that was responsible for maintaining the equipment that actually controlled the landing and take off of everything that passed over our runway, including, on one memorable occasion, a civilian airliner in distress.
We were not only responsible for aircraft but also for three VHF base stations for the Military Police, the fire department and public works. I donít think I need to say much about these. One of our people came in one morning and shut off the Military Police base station. He was in a rage, so nobody asked why. A few minutes later we got a call from the Military Police Desk Sergeant. He asked if anyone working with us had received a speeding ticket that morning. Our NCOIC knew the deal and gave him the personís name. The desk sergeant said it was taken care of and the offended person turned their radio back on. Iím not sure how I feel about that even to this day.
At the transmitter site our primary responsibility was to keep most of 103 transmitters available for use 24 hours a day. I would say that 90 of these radios were discarded by the Air Force in 1957, 12 years before, as unsuitable for their operational uses. There were two very impressive HF radios that I didnít ever learn anything about, and several radios that looked high-powered and like Army surplus. We had one repairman that was supposed to be a guru on the Army stuff, but he was not too stable, mentally. If he couldnít fix the radio by kicking it, he would pick it up and throw it on the floor. The radio was in two parts and each was extremely heavy. If that didnít work, he would turn it off for a week. I never saw him fail to Ďrepairí one of those radios.
The rest of us took care of the rest of the radios. I think that the two HF sets were FRT-24s. We had several TV-7s that I really liked, and the large majority of the radios whose names I canít remember. The majority of the radios were very similar but some of them were UHF and some were VHF. There were subtle differences. All of these had crystal-controlled oscillators to determine the frequencies that they would transmit at (We had no receivers on our side of the runway). There were places for four crystals inside a panel on the left side of the faceplate for each one.
An interesting thing about these radios is that they were not really designed to be Ďfix-tunedí. They were designed to put out at least a solid 12 watts at any part the frequency band they were designed for. Unfortunately, what we used them for meant that they hardly ever had to change frequency; so most repairmen didnít bother to set them up according to the manual. They would hook the radio up to a wattmeter and tune for maximum power on the frequency that the particular radio would be used at. Instead of 12 watts, the UHF model could put out as much as 40 and the VHF models could sometimes be coaxed up to 70 watts. The controllers loved it because they could Ďnailí (Come in LOUD and clear) when talking to an aircraft at ranges of 200 miles or better.)
This was not good for our maintenance budget. All of the radios used the same final power amplifier tubes and I donít remember the nomenclature, but these were very expensive tubes. They were mainly made of metal with a ceramic band just above the tube base. The majority of the tube was gold anodized. The ĎPlateí portion of the tube had a large finned circular heat sink attached to it where the plate voltage was applied. Depending on the radio, the plate voltage could be as high as 40,000 volts, but restricted to a low current by the power supply. A very good thing.
I forgot to mention that I had never received any instruction on any of these radios. None of us had. These were not Marine Corps radios but we were responsible for maintaining them anyway. We had a wonderful Ďtech repí, Mr. Spencer, who had been a Chief in the Navy and was probably a (Rockwell) Ė Collins employee. He probably knew more about radios than I ever will, but I never really liked radios in the first place, or electronics.
I was never very interested in personnel turnover at the Ďtowerí because we just didnít have much to do with them. I do remember an occasion when I had to go up there late at night to borrow a wattmeter, since I had just blown ours up, and the person on duty there was not allowed to handle sharp objects because he had suicidal tendencies. I really wondered how he had made it through school and received this assignment, and how useful a radio repairman could be if he wasnít allowed to use a screwdriver.
There was also the famous Corporal Fant (the Fantom) who ran the receiver site until a few weeks before I got out and I think I have mentioned elsewhere, who was the original invisible man. He drove a Honda sports car and we might see him every now and then if he was having car trouble and needed to borrow some solder to fix one of his carburetor floats.
It took me a while to make Corporal. The chief of the transmitter site was Gunnery Sergeant Boll who had worked in Mess Halls for most of his career. We got in a Corporal from Vietnam, where he had an interesting time, who was promoted to Sergeant almost immediately, but I had a bad habit of calling him by his last name instead of his rank, so I stayed a Lance Corporal (E-3) for an additional 18 months. No big deal. I liked Gunny Boll.
There was a time that we got a whole class out of Air Radio Repair Course. Comm-Elect Schools didnít know where to send them and 2nd MAW didnít either. A year later there was only one left because of transfers to real units, but it was interesting while they were there. We ordinarily worked 24 on 16 off and 8 on, but the abundance of people put us on to 24 on 48 off. I donít think any of the ones that left had any time to learn about the radios that we used, but that was probably a good thing.
One interesting thing about air radio people is that a lot of them at least claim that they have a fear of heights. Most of our antennae were mounted near the top of 85-foot telephone poles out in the antennae farm. On one occasion we were requested to do an inventory of all of our antennae, by serial number. Since I have a fear of falling, but was the only one at the shop that didnít have a fear of heights, I spent several days climbing poles, scrubbing off brass plates with steel wool and yelling down serial numbers to my assistant on the ground. That was interesting.
I would also like to mention Corporal Arce here. He was of Puerto Rican descent and from Harlem, New York. He had joined the Marine Corps to be a veterinarian. That is a little odd since the Marine Corps is completely dependent on the Navy for all medical services, including veterinary. I think that his recruiter took advantage of him. Anyway, he was very sharp, although a little upset about where he had ended up, but he didnít know how to drive. He was 23 years old, but any time he wanted to go anywhere in New York, he took the subway. He was assigned to me and I was told to teach him how to drive. All of our vehicles had manual transmissions, which didnít make things any easier. Being able to drive was especially important to us because we often had to pick up our reliefs from the barracks, which was about 10 miles away. We also had to be able to drive around to the receiver site if necessary, or to the beacon site. Iím afraid that I was not much of a driving instructor at the time, but we finally decided that Corporal Arce was ready to test his wings. Shortly afterwards we got a call that sent us to the receiver site. The only incident was at a place that I never thought much about. There was a large un-lighted concrete pad, possibly a Harrier landing pad, where we needed to make a 90-degree right turn to get onto the road that ran around the end of the runway. The road we came in on was not near any corner of the pad and the edges were actually not visible from the center at night. You just had to know where to turn because, if you didnít hit the road you would either hit a hurricane fence around an electrical power station or wind up out in the weeds in close proximity to an active runway. We were in an International Harvester Scout that night and, when we got to the pad, I knew where the turn was, so I held onto the dashboard at the point where we should have turned. We didnít turn. Unfortunately, I let him drive the full width of the pad and off into the grass before I said anything. I hadnít wanted to shake his confidence, but he never forgave me for that. Since then I have been a lot better at training drivers.
Mike Carroll and I worked shifts together on occasion because he was one of the senior watch standers, but was still a Lance Corporal while I was a Corporal. I HATED working with him. I liked him as a person, but he was dangerous around radios. The most common problem we had a t the transmitter site was that the power amplifier tubes in the radios would wear out quickly because of the fixed tuning. These little babies cost about $110 dollars in 1970 money, more than a monthís pay for me, and we went through $60,000 worth in one year. When you consider the number of radios that we were using, that might make a little more sense. Anyway, the ones that burnt out the fastest were usually in ĎSquadroní radios, the radios that the duty officer at a pilotís squadron would contact him on. These squadron radios were apparently very important to the users so we were not allowed much time after the first phone call to get them going again. The standard procedure was that one watch-stander would run back to the storage room and get a fresh set of power amplifier tubes while the other one got the radio ready to pull forward out of the rack. Keep in mind that we tried not to ever disconnect the radio from the rack because the cabling was very old and had a tendency to fall apart at the worst possible times. (I was only 7 years older that the newest cable) A lot of senior watch standers would let their assistants pull the radios, but I was larger, and apparently stupider than most of the people I worked with. The drill was to pull the radio out of the rack far enough so that it could be tilted down at about a 30-degree angle. The cover over the PA tubes was held on by four Dzus fasteners. I would use a stubby screwdriver to release them, pull the cover off and start pulling the PA tubes out with a pair of hemostats. (Hemostats are very important to electronics repair people as well as to doctors.) At the same time I was holding much of the 85-pound weight of the radio on my left forearm. Since I only had two hands, I couldnít reach the power switch for the radio so it was the assistantís job to make sure that the radio was powered down. Unfortunately, that was the part that Mike Carroll kept forgetting. I have no idea how many times I got zapped with 40,000 volts, at low current, while changing PA tubes with him. I spoke to him a number of times about it, harshly, and things didnít get any better. Finally I let him pull the radios when we were working together, and I never forgot the power switch.
One of the interesting stories about SOMS (Station Operations Maintenance Squadron) Comm-Elect was the radio direction finder that was installed in the tower building. Iím not sure why anyone had any desire to make this thing work, but the one we had didnít, and hadnít for several years. It was a two-piece unit with a receiver/controller/display and a separate antenna outside the building but inside a large fiberglass dome for protection against the elements. The problem with this particular unit was that it could not determine the direction to an aircraft 100 feet away even if it had a strong transmitter, which made it kind of useless. The solution was to sand off the Navy gray lead based paint from the antennae protection dome that had been put on 5 years before, the last time the tower was painted. Lead doesnít let radio waves pass through it very well.
In 1970 the Marine Corps must have had some money to burn because they decided to renovate the control tower building. This made it unusable for quite some time and led to some interesting experiences for me.
For some reason the approach radar that MCAS Beaufort used was actually at MCRD Parris Island, about 20 miles away, and the radar data was passed to Beaufort by a microwave link. The first one that I had seen. This was a big radar set with a range of about 250 miles on a good day, and I keep thinking that it was an FPN-47 or 49, but that might not even be close.
Anyway, it was decided that, to keep operations operating, the GCA (Ground Control Approach) operators and a few select radio repairmen would start working out of the radar site at Parris Island. I was one of the radio repairmen selected. The radar site building was large enough to install some military bunk beds and the radios that the controllers would use without any problems. It was really a nice place to work and the NCOIC (Non Commissioned Officer In Charge) of the radar site was very good. I learned a lot during the months that I was there, including how to rebuild Carter AFB carburetors, and do ignition tune-ups on my 1957 Chevrolet station wagon, 327 cubic inch replacement engine and with a 3 speed (on the floor) manual transmission.
The radar equipment was designed with two parallel sets of electronics. While one was in maintenance, the other was operational, usually. They used the same antennae that looked just like a large radar antennae, except that it was enclosed in a fiberglass geodesic dome type structure. (Triangular fiberglass panels with metal edges that could be bolted together.)
Being an over-achiever I tried to do as much as I could to help the radar guys because my radios didnít give me much trouble, except for PA tubes. (These radios were tuned to the gnatís eyelash.) One of the things that the radar guys did every midnight was Ďlubricate the sailí. The sail was the antenna. Iím sure most of you have seen satellite antennae and the sail looked very much like that except that it was about fifteen feet tall and twenty feet wide. There was not enough room between the edges of the antennae, which rotated constantly while in use, and the skin of the dome, for a pudgy person like myself to get through. I donít know how much power this radar set had, but 2 Megawatts seems to ring a bell. The entrance to the geodesic dome was not covered and it was common to find bird carcasses inside from birds that had flown inside the dome and been cooked just like by a microwave oven.
Both radar channels had their high voltage supplies locked out whenever there was anyone in the bubble, usually. One night, after I had been servicing the sail for several weeks, I climbed the ladder shortly after midnight, after locking out the high voltage supplies, and found the sail had stopped with its edge in the middle of the entrance hole. I had some trouble getting through the remaining space and ended up on the radiating side of the sail. Usually no big deal because I could reach the lubrication point from either side. I threw a few dead birds out and started the lubrication process, then noticed that the sail was starting to move. The sail does not move unless the high voltage is on. I suppose that I should have dropped flat on the floor and taken my chances but I had no idea what the effect of being microwaved would be. (I was NOT curious either.) I followed the edge of the sail through 180 degrees until the access hole was unmasked and got out of there. It got pretty warm, and it was a winter night, but I didnít think much about it. Maybe I should have.
The in-brief for the radar site was also very informative. As soon as I moved in I was told that there were 40 large cylinders of CO2 behind the building. If any of the fire detectors tripped, or malfunctioned, I had about 20 seconds to get out of the building alive before I froze to death. That alarm actually went off once and I was out the door instantly, but the bottles didnít discharge and the fire was pretty small.
One incident that occurred during this period was ĎThe Attack of the Killer Raccooní. For those who may not know, a raccoon looks like a cross between a cat and a dog, and they can get to be fairly large (30 Ė 40 pounds, if well fed). We had three garbage cans outside the front door of the radar site, and many of us ate there, so there were usually items in them that raccoons would be interested in. The local raccoons started pilfering our trash cans, and made a real mess. It was difficult, but not impossible, to hear them knock the cans over. We got in a new radar technician a few months before this part of my career ended. He was Sergeant Frank Taitano, and was from the island of Guam. He decided to end the raccoon threat. I have no idea why because he seemed to be fairly stable in most ways. To make a long story short, he heard crashing cans one night and ran outside to apprehend the offender. He actually managed to wrap the raccoon up in his field jacket, but then it bit him, in the stomach, so he let it go. Big mistake. He had to take the whole series of the old style Ďrabiesí shots and was not a happy person for some time.
We also had a controller Ďlose the pictureí one night. This was a controller that I had, and still have, a lot of respect for, but he just had one too many inbound aircraft one night and couldnít deal with it. One of the reasons why I respect him is that he realized that he was totally non-functional, and pushed his chair back from the console. The senior controller noticed and took over for him before any damage was done. We never saw him again.
I would like to make the point that, at this time, I was told that we didn't use any voice encryption gear on our radios inside the CONUS. There were some pieces of cryptographic gear at the schools where people were trained to repair it, and I think there was some at the Naval base at Treasure Island, California, but the majority of this gear was overseas and being used in Vietnam. Oddly enough, after I had finished the course on how to repair this type of equipment, I was told that I couldn't be deployed overseas anymore because of that knowledge. I still wonder if that was true. I also wonder who was repairing the equipment that was overseas.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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