Island Sentinels

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro
  • Airman Magazine

In a land steeped in mythology and legend, lies a mountain whose peak touches the clouds.


Mount Ka’ala, Oahu, the majestic remnant of an eroded shield volcano, is said to be home to the Hawaiian goddess Kaiona, “protector of those in need.”

Atop the Waiʻanae Range, the highest point on the island — Ka’ala — is also home to a modern protector keeping watch over the people; a radar station that monitors the airspace around Hawaii, operated by Hawaii Air National Guard’s 169th Air Defense Squadron based at Wheeler Army Airfield.

Their mission: Detect, monitor, identify, intercept, and if necessary destroy airborne objects that may pose a threat to the Hawaiian Air Defense Region (HADR).

The mission’s origin are a direct result of hard lessons learned on Dec. 7, 1941.

That morning, an SC-270 mobile radar site was deployed at Opana Point on the north shore of Oahu. U.S. Army Pvts. Joseph L. Lockard and George Elliot, who were manning the Opana Point site, detected a large signal at 7:02 am that was 72 miles away and approaching Oahu. It was one of the biggest signals they had ever seen.

Compared to today’s radar systems, the SC-270 was quite primitive. Operators determined the relative size and range of a contact by the amplitude of a signal displayed on an oscilloscope and had to lean out the window to see which way the antennae was pointing to estimate a bearing.

The men reported the signal to the information center at Fort Shafter in Honolulu, but most of the staff had left to eat breakfast. The only people on duty were a telephone switchboard operator and a fighter squadron liaison officer, Lt. Kermit Tyler, who had been in the information center only once before on the previous Wednesday, according to Pacific Air Forces historian Charles Nicholls.

When Elliot and Lockard reported the contact to the inexperienced Tyler, they failed to mention the size or direction of the signal. Tyler, assuming that their contact was a scheduled flight of six Army B-17 bombers due in from California, told the privates not to be concerned. For practice, the two operators continued plotting the incoming signal until 7:40 a.m.

Tyler was correct that there were B-17s on their way to Hickam Field adjacent to Pearl Harbor, but they were approaching from the east.

The signal to the north was, in fact, a wave of more than 180 Japanese fighters, torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers, and high-altitude bombers. Just before 8 a.m., the planes began a devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that would cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet and hurl the U.S. into World War II.

According to Nicholls, even if the early radar reports were complete had been heeded, the lack of preparedness on the ground would have led to largely the same result. Personnel were on weekend leave, unarmed planes were parked on the flightline wingtip to wingtip and there were no alert fighters ready to intercept an incoming threat.

The painful lessons learned that day are the foundation of the 169th ADS’s mission: effective air defense must integrate around-the-clock airspace surveillance and threat detection with the ability to track and immediately intercept potential threats. If any ingredient is missing, the entire mission is compromised.

“In the air domain of homeland defense, things happen very, very quickly and can originate anywhere on the globe,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Jarratt, commander of the 169th ADS. “For that reason, we must be on alert 24/7, because we don’t know what is going to happen over the next five or 10 minutes.”

Given the speed and range of modern-day aircraft, early detection is more important than ever. To accomplish that goal, Jarratt has 22 operations and maintenance personnel at three locations across the Hawaiian Islands providing air defense—like the Airmen that sit atop Ka’ala.

Their mission is not the typical day-to-day shift work. For the six personnel assigned to Ka’ala Air Base, which is perched atop a narrow ridge surrounded by an ancient rain forest, doing their jobs means living at the radar site for 24 hours at a time, sometimes for multiple days, to ensure that there is never another attack like that on Dec. 7, 1941.

“Because of the time it takes for us to travel all the way up the mountain and because of the constantly changing weather, it would be nearly impossible for us to work normal hours,” said Airman 1st Class Kevin Plunkett, a radio frequency transmissions systems technician with the 169th ADS. “Sometimes the weather is so bad and the road conditions are so treacherous that the crew sitting watch atop the mountain must be ready to pull back to back shifts.

“Even when that happens we are prepared, and honestly, who wouldn’t want to stay a little longer to help defend the nation at one of the most beautiful places on the planet?”

The six technicians nestled high above Oahu are the first line of defense when it comes to the sovereignty of the HADR; they remain vigilant and prepared to maintain the millions of dollars of radar and transmission equipment atop Ka’ala. If not for these mountain-dwelling Airmen, Jarratt’s team that monitors the airspace around Hawaii from the operations floor at Wheeler Army Airfield would be staring at blank screens.

Relayed down from remote radar stations across Hawaii, like Ka’ala AB, sensor signatures and flight information are collated and displayed in the 169th ADS command and control center at Wheeler. Rows of monitors display the incoming data, which is scrutinized by operators representing more than six specialties. In the background, there is a constant chirp of ground radio communication between 169th ADS Airmen and telephone communication with civilian partners like the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and state law enforcement.

The cooperation between military and civilian assets provides a complete picture of the airspace surrounding the Hawaiian Islands each and every second of every day.

When the 169th ADS spots a potential threat, such as an unidentifiable or unresponsive aircraft, F-22 Raptors of the Hawaii ANG’s 199th Fighter Squadron, on alert at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, are just a phone call away.

“If there is an aircraft that is unidentifiable, then we initiate a scramble of F-22s and then control the fighters to intercept it,” said Jarratt. “We pull up along side them, figure out who they are, and find out what they are doing.”

This type of aggressive air interdiction has not always been the norm for the 169th ADS. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the entire exercise, training, and operational procedures program changed significantly, much like what happened in the days following the Japanese attack on Oahu.

According to Jarratt, there was an immediate upgrade of technology and equipment used to monitor the airspace for threats after 9/11. The previous mission, which focused on tracking foreign nation military aircraft, was now expanded to monitor the movements of civilian aircraft as well.

“It was a total change in mindset, from looking outward to looking everywhere (for threats),” Jarratt said.

The Hawaii ANG squadron’s mission was conducted in conjunction with U.S. Air Force until the early 1990’s when the Air Force squadron stood down. Since then, it has been the citizen Airmen of the 169th ADS in cooperation with civilian agencies, which has been keeping watch over the Hawaiian Islands.

“All guardsmen are on a full-time status, so we have the ability to work with the state and the active-duty Air Force and we do it for a very long period of time,” Jarratt said. “We don’t PCS every couple of years, so we have people here in the unit that have 30 or 40 years of experience … that is absolutely key to our relationships with the other agencies and conducting the mission in a seamless manner.”

To see how the U.S defends Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, see Arctic Vigil.