JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas —
Every day, U.S. Air Force fighters, bombers and mobility aircraft take off across the globe to showcase the tenacity of American airpower to those who choose tyranny over freedom.
However, those critical missions are not successful until those aircraft return safely to Earth, touching down on a friendly runway. That safe navigation and transition to solid ground is enabled by the Radar Airfield Weather Systems, or RAWS, maintenance shop.
RAWS technicians work on the radio navigation beacons, weather reporting/radar equipment, air traffic control radios and runway guidance devices that ensure efficient airfield operations. Multiple Air Force Specialty Codes have been combined over the last 30 years to bring all airfield systems maintenance under one roof.
Within the 12th Operations Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph is one of the most elite RAWS shops in the world.
“I’d put us up against anybody in the Air Force as one of the best,” said Kristopher Kite, RAWS shop supervisor.
They have over 300 years of combined experience in the speciality AFSCs that came together to form the core of the RAWS mission.
“My oldest guy has 40 years of experience and my youngest has just over 17 years,” Kite said. “We have one of the most diverse groups, but one of the best proactive and problem-solving shops in the Air Force.”
Due to their wealth of knowledge, the reach of the 12 OSS’ RAWS team extends far beyond the hill country of South Texas. 12th OSS’ technicians are often called away on official trips across the world to provide support to bases who experience the most unique technical issues.
“We get called to resolve issues not only here at Randolph, but across all of AETC,” Kite said.
The level of complexity required to dig deeper into many of the airfield systems takes a seasoned professional, possessing knowledge only gained through years of practice.
“We’re the only shop in the Air Force that still does component-level repair, troubleshooting down to the level of circuit boards and wiring,” Kite said. “Other bases send us their stuff, we fix it and send it back to them.”
Two of the most important systems the RAWS shop maintains are the Enhanced Terminal Voice Switch in the control tower and the Randolph navigational aids on the airfield.
The ETVS is the brain behind the most critical lines of communication at JBSA-Randolph.
“The ETVS controls all the communications between the tower and everywhere else, the phones, the radios, all the way down to opening electronically locked doors,” said Joe Pranger, RAWS technician.
These clear and concise communications take on immense importance in the event of an emergency and responding agencies can be instantly contacted with the push of a button.
“If there is an aircraft emergency, the ETVS automatically calls the other tower, the fire department, the hospital and the base operations center,” Pranger said. “This creates a conference call between those agencies so they can share information about the incident.”
From that primary notification, those base agencies can disseminate information through secondary communication channels, allowing the air traffic controllers to focus on ensuring the safety of the pilots and their wounded aircraft.
“The controllers, during an emergency, are too busy to have all these outside agencies trying to talk to them,” Pranger said.
The VORTAC is a combination between antennas for Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range, or VOR, and Tactical Air Navigation, or TACAN. Both systems allow for precise navigation from any compass direction within 100-200 nautical miles to directly over the beacon on the west side of the airfield.
“Inside the cone section from the red line down are a series of very high frequency radio antennas for the VOR portion,” Pranger said. “The top section is the TACAN, ultra high frequency radio antennas used only for military flight operations.”
Maintenance on the VORTAC is a unique hybrid of computer diagnostics and hands-on repair of the physical components at the site.
“There are three Air Force regional centers around the world that can perform remote monitoring and maintenance,” Pranger said. “If something breaks, they can diagnose the issue, send us a part, we can install it and they make the adjustments.”
This hybrid maintenance is efficient and the way of the future, but not all problems can be solved with the click of a button.
“Automation is great, but it only gets you so far when the hard wiring, circuit cards, antennas, etc. begin to break down,” Pranger said.
It is for that reason that the centuries of experience in the 12th OSS’ RAWS shop will continue to be vital for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve come a long way from fires on mountaintops to what we have today,” said Brian Harder, RAWS technician.
Just as tribe members were entrusted to stoke those fires and ensure clear communication with the prehistoric world, RAWS technicians will stand ready to ensure the most powerful Air Force in the world can execute the mission and always find their way back to safe harbor.