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Air Force Ground Control Squadrons
A Band of Gypsies
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In another time, they’d creak along huddled in hundreds of bulky wooden wagons filled with their effects.

Through thick brown mud, over huge sand dunes and huddled for warmth in the cold, the wheels of this band of gypsies would roll along.

The words from a traditional gypsy song might best sum up their lives:

And their captain was a handsome man
He had a sword and what looked like a plan
But there was something wrong in his eyes
Bloodshot and bleary from too many nights

Eyes, minds and bodies are often weary because Air Force air control squadrons travel constantly. Global conflicts, exercises and training keep wheels moving from place to place. Home is the place where the equipment is stored. It’s a relative spot for those who can be deployed as many as 250 days each year.

Almost vanquished in the mid-1990s, air control squadrons in Europe and Korea are suddenly vital again. Deploying from locations around the world, they roll into place, hoist their radar and begin work. In doing so, they provide a piece of the airborne battlefield picture, meshing their data with that of the E-3 airborne warning and control system and E-8C joint surveillance target attack radar system. When all the puzzle pieces come together, theater commanders see the complete battlefield from top to bottom.

In another role, a 50-year-old U.S. air control unit camped on Iceland’s tundra provides that nation’s only air warning capability. Coupled with American F-15s prowling Iceland’s shoreline, air controllers have caught Soviet Bear bombers and more.

Most assigned to these military gypsy caravans understand the nature of the business. There are three to four deployments each year, some 100 days or longer. That means frequent time away from home. But Staff Sgt. Dee Yates, an operator for more than 12 years, enjoys her nomadic life.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said. “It’s what I joined the Air Force for.”

The gypsy soul

Airmen from Spangdahlem Air Base’s 606th Air Control Squadron in Germany know the refrain all too well:

I see the war and peace
I see the death and birth
I see all the bloodshed
For I have a gypsy soul

From its roots in Texas, the squadron’s three-hour notice to deploy to Pusan, Korea, in 1950, its movement around Bitburg, Basdahl and Dobraberg, Germany, in the 1980s and its eventual settlement at Spangdahlem, the squadron knows the rigors of war.

It spent six months in Italy during Operation Deny Flight controlling 9,600 refueling missions in 1996. It sent 88 vehicles, 800 short tons and 100 troops to Italy for Operation Allied Force in 1999. The 1,600 miles traveled completed what squadron members boast was the longest overland convoy in Air Force history.

Simulation exercises are normally run twice a week to help crews maintain their edge by working through various scenarios. Senior Airmen Kelli Zuniga and Sylas Welch monitor the scenarios for the air surveillance team at the 932nd Air Control Squadron at Keflavik Naval Air Station. Official Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. John E. Lasky

It sent another 113 troops to Kuwait for Air Expeditionary Force 9 and Operation Southern Watch in 2000. There, controllers tracked more than 3,500 aircraft and controlled 2,400 refueling missions.

Capt. Russ Hayes, who carries one of the squadron’s swords and has the plan, said in addition to the gypsy mentality engrained on everyone’s minds, the squadron offers value to senior leadership.

“An AWACS can’t fly for forever,” he said. “We’re a 24-hour operation. We’re cheap, and we work well with the Army’s missile units.”

Hayes’ unit employs an array of equipment, including the AN-FPS-117 radar and AN/GPA-123 beacon antenna. The sensors coupled with others give the unit greater coverage than most small city airports. The radar works well, Hayes said, through multifaceted conditions, including inconsistent terrain, heavy rain, migrating birds, glaciers and chaff.

There are also several trucks and small trailers filled with computer equipment. Smoky, pungent smelling diesel generators power the unit while thin fiber optic cable connects it all and sends the data to headquarters.
Unfortunately, with a Godzilla-sized infrared/radar “footprint,” Hayes and his fellow gypsies are a ripe target for enemy bombers and guns. Sometimes, that means taking cover from enemy bombs and shooting.

“Our infrared signature is huge,” he said. “Although we have certain countermeasures, no one is a stranger to bunker dives.”

Although his two years served is miniscule compared to many of the squadron’s gypsies, Hayes is well aware of the toll time away can take. He said he and the other squadron leaders take great care in working with airmen, spouses and children to understand and cope with the lifestyle.

“The tempo of operations can be frustrating. We have a United States Air Forces in Europe commitment. We have a NATO commitment. We have our AEF commitment and others,” he said. “We can’t do any of it if we can’t deploy and train.”

Meanwhile, Hayes always looks forward to the next deployment.

“I work with the best bunch of folks in the world. I love being in the field with them,” he said.

Loki’s mischief in Iceland

For more than 50 years, it’s been the Air Force mission to watch the skies of Iceland, reminiscent of another familiar gypsy song verse:

I whiled away all the years of my youth
Tending my fields searching for the truth
Gazing past horizons to the west
Hoping I’d see them before my death

In contrast to their European and Korean counterparts, controllers who wander into Iceland’s 932nd Air Control Squadron at Keflavik Naval Air Station catch a break. The tempo has slowed since the Cold War. Not since 1999 has anyone seen a Russian aircraft or sent an F-15 to chase one.

Codenamed “Loki” — named for the Norse god of mischief — the squadron with 15 outstanding unit awards doesn’t deploy as often. That means Loki’s airmen have ample time to finish an education, spend time with their families or simply drink in the pleasures of an Icelandic tour.

However, there’s still work to be done. Despite a 75 percent annual turnover rate and a 60- to 75-day initial qualification for each new troop, the squadron manages to keep the air sovereignty big picture focused for the North American Aerospace Defense Command and NATO.

Four radomes — one of which is only reachable by boat — are based on remote parts of the island. They create a blanket of coverage

Staff Sgt. Brandon Wiebke, a ground radar systems journeyman, backs an M-923 5-ton truck with a TPS-75 transportable search radar off a raised platform. In 1999, the 606th Air Control Squadron hit the road with 88 vehicles — its largest caravan to date. Official Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. John E. Lasky

spreading more than 250,000 miles on Iceland and into the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. A central headquarters houses a secure bunker. Tech. Sgt. Ed Figueroa, an air surveillance technician, has ridden the air control squadron caravan around the world for 14 years. The single father with two children said Loki hasn’t laughed at his need for stability at a crucial point in his life.

“Keflavik has been a blessing. I have a routine. I can spend time with my kids and not have to worry about child care or other issues,” Figueroa said. “I still get a great sense of mission.”

To keep their edge, the controllers practice their skills almost daily with the island’s F-15 quartet. Exercises are usually filled with radio chatter, animated tracking screens and airmen striving to keep their edge on what Iceland’s 85th Group commander Col. Bruce Rember called “an absolutely vital mission.”

Maj. Dale Sinnott, Loki’s operations officer, said while the work differs from their Europe and Korea comrades, the leadership still keeps people on their toes.

“These are the best trained airmen in the career field,” he said. “Anyone here can sit in almost any other position and perform those functions. That’s a luxury we have — being able to train people in a number of different disciplines.”

The caravan rolls on

Admittedly, air control squadron leaders and supervisors have troubles keeping people. Spangdahlem’s Hayes said the travel schedule wears on some, and no amount of talking will keep them from retraining or leaving the service. There’s also an issue with equipment, some of which has been around since the Vietnam War.

“At the least, we want people to understand what they’ll get here,” he said. “We provide a good support structure for spouses, and we’re doing our best to upgrade the equipment. We’re doing as many things as we can to make this life livable.”

Three years as an air surveillance technician for Senior Airman Amber Hartline have given her a favorable impression so far. She’s one of Loki’s controllers and believes the mission is important, regardless of the venue.

“It makes me feel like I belong,” she said. “There’s so much to do, and we’re constantly busy. I’m part of a team.”
Time away from Spangdahlem gives Airman 1st Class Kevin Byers — one of those airmen Hayes will try to retain — an opportunity to study for promotion and read his Bible. Without Byars and the others who maintain the unit’s 35-year-old diesel generators, the unit would come to a standstill.

“It’s nice to have power,” Byars said. “Without power, you’re just camping.”

They still roll through mud, creak through the desert sand and find their way to places most people never go. But for more than 500 men and women in air control squadrons around the world, these words might sum up their careers and signal the start of another deployment:

Then one day they rumbled by
A gypsy caravan the color of the sky
Water sparkled as the wheels turned round
Across the river into the town.

Above Article byTech. Sgt. Jason Tudor, Published in Airman's Magazine


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