Senior Airman Carlos Salinas, Master Sgt. Eric Kastner, Tech. Sgt. Shannon Meredeth, Maj. Mike Phillips, Senior Airman Jason Cecala, Senior Airman Rudy Mendez, Staff Sgt. Jered Smither, Tech Sgt. Terrance Drayton and Senior Airman Mayra Christian, all assigned to the 1st Communications Maintenance Squadron work together to lower a dish in the snow atop Cima Galina, Italy. (Courtsey photo)
by Master Sgt. Eric Kastner and Tech. Sgt. Frank Robinson
1st Communications Maintenance Squa
8/5/2008 - RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- In the early spring of 2008 the 1st Communications Maintenance Squadron was tasked with removing all equipment, antennas and associated hardware at nine microwave radio communications sites located throughout northern Italy.
These sites were part of the Digital European Backbone, a line of sight microwave network that once stretched from the United Kingdom through mainland Europe all the way down to Crete. The DEB is being transformed through advances in communications technology which have rendered these radio links obsolete. Since the 1960s, the DEB has been an essential part of Air Force operations and has been a mainstay for communications professionals stationed in Europe. For the last decade, the maintenance professionals in the 1st CMXS have maintained the radios, antennas and towers supporting this mission.
The decommissioning efforts started approximately 28 months ago in the United Kingdom when the Air Force began cutting the DEB over to fiber optic cable. This task was bittersweet, as many of these sites have historical significance. For example, the radio site at Royal Air Force Barford St. John has been used for communications purposes in one form or another since World War II. Removing these radio systems equates to the final step in transitioning from the "old school" form of communicating to the "new" breed of communications using fiber optics and internet based technology. For those of us that proudly installed and maintained these "old school" systems, there is a great sense of loss with this decommission.
Once the UK sites were closed, the decommissioning efforts moved into the Germany and Belgium regions and 1st CMXS was again called on to lead the efforts with the antennas and associated hardware. Many of the sites in both of these countries also have historical and interesting backgrounds.
The site in Houtem Veurne, Belgium, has a 799 foot tall communications tower. Not only did Airmen have to climb this enormous tower, but if the support lines gave way and it fell in the right direction, a portion of the tower would have landed in France. While many of the technicians won't miss the painstaking climb to the top of that tower, most are sad to see it go since it was such a challenge. Another of the sites in Germany just northwest of Frankfurt was once a hunting lodge before and during WWII. This lodge was used by the elite German SS troops and other German military leadership.
When the squadron received orders to complete the decommissioning, it signaled the end of an era in communications. Some of the sites in Italy were formerly German radar installations during WWII, and many of the sites located in Belgium, Germany and Italy were built as a communications line for the German military during WWII. Starting from Kapaun, Master Sgt. Eric Kastner led a team of four electronics technicians and Tech. Sgt. Frank Robinson led a team of 10 antenna and cable maintainers on a 60-day decommissioning trip which led them to the Tuscany region of Italy.
From the top of Monte Serra the teams were able to see out into the Mediterranean Sea, providing dramatic sunrises and sunsets at the beginning and end of some extremely long days of removing antennas and communications equipment. The second site on the trip was Monte Cimone, a former German radar site and anti-aircraft gun battery during WWII. Working at this site was a true challenge; the team was required to travel through a portion of the mountain on a small train every day. The trip took approximately two and a half hours to get all the personnel and tools to the mountain top, which, when combined with an altitude of 7,000 feet, made for a long hard day. Many of the workers at this location found that by the end of the workday they were totally exhausted.
The team then traveled to a small town situated on the shores of Lake Garda. They used this as a jumping off point to decommission two sites in the area. The first site was Monte Corna which once served as the central hub for all Department of Defense communications in Northern Italy and thus contained the largest number of antennas and the most extensive list of communications equipment. The second site was located on an Italian air base and, since it was still an operational location, proved to be one of the more difficult sites. Working around live circuits and untangling wires was a time consuming and tedious job but the team prevailed and successfully disconnected the equipment without disrupting traffic on any other circuits.
The next stop on their decommissioning trip was a site named Monte Venda, located on the side of a mountain. A major hurdle at this site was the lack of real estate that was available for lowering the antennas. Using various support points and a great deal of ingenuity, the team overcame the lack of space and safely removed all antennas and communications equipment. Once again active circuits made this job more complicated, as the site was co-located on a section of the mountain controlled by the Italian military and supporting multiple Italian television feeds. After completing this site, the team traveled to Aviano Air Base, which served as a jumping off point for two more decommissions in Cheggia and a tower on Aviano.
The first of the two mountain top sites was Monte Cima Galina which is accessible only via helicopter, which added a unique twist to not only accessing the site, but also in getting the right equipment on site to get the job done. In order to do so, the helicopter used a large net attached to the helicopter via a cable to carry all the equipment and supplies to the site. Again the altitude made for some long hard days, and due to the complexity of getting to the site the teams remained overnight in the shelter for a few nights to complete the job. However, despite a few feet of snow on the ground around the tower, the teams quickly removed the dishes and communications equipments.
"I was truly amazed when I arrived on site, as despite the amazing views coupled with a few feet of snow, the teams immediately began organizing the work ahead," said Maj. Mike Phillips, 1st CMXS commander. "Within a day we had most of the radio room clear and all four antennas down off the tower."
The final site was Monte Paganella, a few hours drive from Cima Galina yet also located at around 9,000 feet in altitude. The team utilized a ski lift operating from the city of Andalo to gain access to the top of the mountain. However, the lift ended just under a half mile from the site, so the team still had to hike over to the tower.
Once this site was finished the DEB system that had supported numerous missions in the decades that it was used was no longer there. A moment of silence was observed to think about all that this system stood for and supported.
"As a commander, I've never been more proud and impressed with my Airmen," said Major Phillips. "Two extremely diverse teams representing five AFSCs [Air Force specialty codes] came together as a group dedicated to accomplishing the mission. It was truly an honor to be a part of this job, something I'll carry with me long after my command tour."
By the time the team finished this Italian trip they had traveled more than 3,000 miles, removed 38 parabolic dish antennas, 5,100 feet of waveguide, a 6 element broadcast antenna, 18 Alcatel microwave radios, 6 Eltek flatpack rectifiers, 3 Loraine rectifier systems, 9 waveguide dehydrator systems, 4 Marconi ATM switches, 3 Net Path alarm transfer systems and 7 D4 channel banks. The teams also removed around 10 miles of cabling and 400 to 500 feet of cable ladder and support structures.
After 60 days of some hard work and some exciting locations this trip was very rewarding even though it involved bringing down what some of us consider a part of history.