Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My summer of 72

I got an e-mail from someone through my Website after reading my post about my almost court martial, wanting to know if I was one of a dozen or so troops who spent the summer of 1972 (about Memorial Day to Labor Day) working outside of Eielson Air Force Base (AFB), Alaska. I had almost forgotten that time.

I can't remember the circumstances behind the reason the group of a dozen or so of us lower grade enlisted troops were sent from McClellan AFB, but it was the closest unit and base in our organization and being the central global maintenance and engineering unit for the organization. For me, they just wanted me away for a while after winning the initial round of hearings cancelling the rest of the court martial.

Anyway, we flew to Anchorage on commercial airline, transferred to a military cargo plane to fiy to Eielson AFB. It was late May and I remember the sun not setting until after 2 am and rising about 4 am. I didn't sleep well the whole time for the amount of daylight. We had two major tasks.

The first was to remove all the buried pipe associated with the sonic or weather system used to detect, er. monitor nuclear detonations. But first a diversion.

All nuclear explosions have common characteristics, which are part of the actual explosion or material. We had a system for each of the different types of detonations (underground, underwater, surface or atmospheric) and specific characteristic(s). These were housed in ground-based locations, and included seismic, magnetic, electrical, barometric, sonic, and light systems with airborne and ship-based systems for direct observation and sampling.

The barometric system used an array of specific size and spaced pipes and sensors to detect the pressure wave generated by a detonation. The sensor array and equipment are used to capture the pattern of atmospheric pressures changes and any anomalies, such as a sudden pressure wave by a nuclear detonation. This system was being phased out, and under the agreement with any landowners, we were obligated to remove any signs of our equipment.

All I remember is much of the old pipes and sensors were buried - meaning long since not working as they have to be exposed to the atmosphere to work, and they were on the University of Alaska campus. Try removing hundreds of feet of pipe with sensor heads about 10 feet, some of which was buried a few inches to a foot or more wasn't fun. And one pipe section actually went under a tree. It was left there broken and the closest joints.

The other work I remember was installing extra cable for the seismic arrary miles from the station on the base. The organization had what they called a "deep hole" seismic sensor, down just over a mile. Nuclear detonations send seismic waves similar to an earthquake which reverberate around the world. Most of the seismic, B system, sites had shallow sensors, about a thousand feet or less, but Eielson had the deepest hole for testing and monitoring.

Every system had its sensors far from any human activity and far from the station to ensure a better signal and reduce noise and inteference. And every system ran a duplicate sets of cables, one set not used, but then avaiable to simply switch connections at junction points during cable breakage or failure, common in some areas from weather or people, or during bad weather or immediate situations.

The problems with cable failure was common as it was normal to go through a complete set of spare cables in 1-3 years. In Greenland and Alaska the problems was simply the cold weather would snap cables or break connectors. In some areas, like Thailand, Iran, etc., sections of cables, which were in quarter mile length between connectors, were stolen by local theives.

In Alaska we were running them a new direction to the station, across the backcountry around the base and along roads to and on the base. In some cases the poles were only just installed a week or so before and hadn't fully settled into the ground to the permafrost. They swayed with leaned against and moved or tilted when cabbles were hung. Not a fun job climbing the poles to secure the cables, something I refused to do.

But it was the backcountry that was the best experience. It was my first trip there. We used a Nodwell, painted bright yellow with a stakeside bed for the cable spools and extra equipment for connectors, etc. This, also, was my first experience with these vehicles. And they are cool.

Our job for the first stretch was to unspool the cable and lay it on the ground. We did this through the forest, just laying it in cable bundles on the forest floor. And we did this across open areas, which is where I learned about fen, a type of subarctic bog. It's different in its structure, composition, soil, plants, water source, etc. from bogs, muskeg and other types.

It's the water source that distinguishes it. It's fed by groundwater where the land is completely water logged with a mass of plants living in an anaerobic environment. Underlying it could be peat or other material and more water, but the permafrost is significantly deeper than other areas around it.

The last distinguishing feature is that it supports weight, almost any weight, including the Nodwell, weighing in with all of our gear and equipment at over 12 tons. I know this because my job was to follow it and unwind the cable(s). And walking behind it across a fen is literally awesome.

It's like walking across a sponge filled shallow lake. You almost float on your feet. Each step sinks about an inch, feels bouncy beneath you, and fills quickly when you move your foot, like you weren't even there. You simply trusted you won't sink and you don't. And the Nodwell only sank a little more than your foot. They just drove it straight across the fen.

I could write more stories about the work and with the Nodwell, like taking it vertical over a railroad bed (it's rear drive literally pushes the front, and as long you can have traction, it willl climb, and almost straight up), or almost losing it when it decided to slide into a lake (we backed out and took a different route around the lake), or after crossing a bridge we saw the sign that read, "10 ton limit", or getting a lesson in ways to high center a 12 ton tracked vehicle (meaning you are really stuck).

It is the fen that I remember the most, those small patches of nature that surprise the senses. I went back to Alaska in the early 1990's, to Anchorage for a week. This wasn't an enjoyable trip and Anchorage in the spring, just after snowmelt, isn't pretty. And I didn't get to travel beyond work and the hotel, and then travel home.

But I will remember the fen, and of course the Nodwell.

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