Last year, 9th Air Force (9AF) Air Forces Central (AFCENT) tasked Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic to build and install a completely transportable Air Traffic Control (ATC) facility to address an existing flight safety risk at an air base in Southwest Asia.
Within five weeks of travelling to the air base, however, the global pandemic hit and countries around the world closed their borders in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. To protect personnel, leadership at the air base also implemented protective measures, including restricting travel to and from the base.
“The air base was operating on old, unsupportable equipment that was posing a potential safety risk to the area,” said Clayton Fronk, ATC Special Programs integrated product team (IPT) lead, NIWC Atlantic ATC Engineering division. “At the direction of 9 AF (AFCENT) we had to act as quickly as possible to ensure the base had usable, supportable, and lasting equipment.”
The original tasking included engineering, assembling, integrating, and pre-installation test and checkout of the system in Charleston and then sending a team of four government employees and eight contract employees to the site to install the system and perform a system operational verification test.
The contractor installation team, originally assigned to the transportable facility project, left the air base within 24 hours of arriving in-country once they learned the country was closing its borders and the base was restricting movement. Meanwhile, the team’s first shipment of supplies had just arrived and two more shipments were en route.
With equipment on the way, the deployed NIWC Atlantic ATC Special Programs team, electrical engineer Susan Marsh and senior electronics technician Rudy Diaz, moved on base and remained in place to complete the assembly and integration of the transportable ATC facility to prevent flight safety hazards and mission stoppage.
“Rudy and I were just going to stay to receive the equipment and stage for when the installation team returned,” said Marsh, who was also the lead project engineer. “With all the electronic equipment coming, we couldn’t just leave it to be stacked in the desert.”
Marsh and Diaz worked seven days a week unpacking and setting up the containers, and connecting power and the HVAC systems to keep the equipment cool.
“Initially, it was just the overwhelming amount of work,” said Marsh. “Then gradually we realized that help was not coming anytime soon, and all we could do was keep moving and keep making progress.”
“We kept working and used the elephant saying a lot – ‘how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,’” said Marsh. “As time went by, we just kept building and installing with the belief that everything that we were accomplishing would shorten the installers’ time on the ground when they returned.”
When the radar antenna tower steel and radome arrived, Marsh and Diaz started building it with the help of the local Air Force personnel and equipment. The Air Force was able to provide required material handling equipment and critical manpower throughout the entire install to help minimize schedule slips.
“When we send a team over, the government personnel are involved in all aspects of the project but normally take a lead planning role with contractors performing daily tasks and duties,” said Fronk. “With the team being drastically reduced, they had to take on all the duties and had to be intimately involved in every aspect of the install including routine taskings.”
Over the next six months, Marsh and Diaz faced their fair share of trials and tribulations.
“Any install in a deployed area can be extremely difficult,” said Fronk. “This install had additional stresses due to the pandemic and the impact it had both on U.S. forces and the host nation. There were challenges every day at every step of the install.”
Fortunately, Marsh and Diaz, both Navy veterans, have years of experience performing military installs in extremely harsh environments. They relied on lessons learned and on-the-job training to push through and solve problems.
The team faced their hardest tribulation, however, when Marsh’s mother passed away.
“We almost broke when my mom passed away,” Marsh said. “There was no way to get home quickly, no way to get to our families quickly, and it hit us how much we were leaving our families to deal with while we were gone. That was the toughest – the hardships we left our families to deal with without us.”
Knowing that so many U.S. service members were deployed as well, though, was what Marsh said helped them find the strength to complete their very critical job.
“They are doing the job of defending and protecting our country while their families are going through tough times and difficulties back home also,” said Marsh. “How can we do less? How can we not give them the best we’re able to provide?”
In September, a third NIWC Atlantic team member, senior electronics technician Aaron Scott, joined the team on the ground. As a result of their efforts, the ATC Special Programs IPT was able to successfully install the transportable ATC facility with minimal schedule delays.
“It was their drive and determination to complete these mission-essential tasks in support of the warfighter that allowed these professionals to complete such a monumental project,” Fronk said. “Their work has brought the entire IPT together and made the team stronger. By watching the example that they’ve set, and supporting them from the home station, every IPT member has a newfound appreciation and respect for the work required and for these team members. They are examples that NWIC Atlantic has the skilled workforce to accomplish anything.”
As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.