1374th Mapping & Charting Squadron

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A Tribute To:


By Bill Sapp (with Gordon Barnes)


 Do you ever just want to get away from it all? To escape to an isolated mountaintop in some far off, exotic land for months on end? To be furnished a place to stay with three meals a day while there? And to draw not only your current salary but also a little extra besides? Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Maybe like some military recruiter's promise? Well, just such an opportunity WAS offered to a unique group of Air Force Photomappers during a period lasting some 30 years-roughly from the mid 1940s to the mid '70s. These men were known by the function they performed; i.e., Ground Station Operators.

 Before explaining exactly WHAT these individuals did at such locations throughout the world, it might be interesting to examine WHY they were given such opportunities in the first place.

 Until World War II ( WW II), wars involving the United States military were confined to localized geographic areas. Our weapons and their targets were located on the same landmasses; and the maps and charts used to get the weapon delivery systems with their weapons to their targets were all on a common, localized geodetic datum. That is, the delivery systems and the targets were in the same coordinate system so targeting was not a big problem. If we did experience targeting problems, there were always people closely involved who, using direct observations, could make timely adjustments. For example, we had navigators aboard aircraft and forward observers with artillery units who could make last minute corrections.

 From WW II came three major lessons. First, future wars probably would not be fought in localized areas but would likely involve enemies from such widely separated areas of the world as Europe and the Far East. Second, current technology would allow development of unmanned, standoff weapons capable of traveling great distances to their targets. And, finally, if we were to take advantage of such weapons, we needed to be able to have our weapon launch points and their targets on a common coordinate system so that we could obtain the accuracies needed to assure killing the targets. That is, ideally we would have the whole world on a common coordinate system. But how could we do that? We had no survey instruments or systems capable of tying the continents together to any degree of accuracy. Accurate surveying through the mid 1940s had been almost solely by optical means-people looking through theodolites to measure angles and taping distances. Thus, distances over which geodetic control could be extended were limited by line-of-sight.

 The late 1940s brought electromagnetic survey instrumentation into operational play. By loading some of this equipment into high-flying aircraft, electromagnetic line-of-sight could be extended to lines of 500 miles and more and for the first time it appeared that tying landmasses separated by great distances might be feasible. First attempts were made by the Canadians using a system called SHORAN (SHort RAnge Navigation) that they used to tie their northern islands to their landmass. Shortly after, the US Air Force Photomappers began aerial electronic surveying using similar SHORAN systems. Accuracies were not good, however; so improvements were made which resulted in a system called HIRAN ( HIgh frequency Ranging And Navigation or HIgh accuracy shoRAN, take your pick). This system consisted of an aircraft containing HIRAN equipment transmitting pulses to each of two HIRAN Ground Stations while repeatedly flying back and forth across the imaginary line connecting the two stations. By timing the round trip times of the signals a distance to each station could be computed; and when the combined distances were a minimum, the sea-level great circle distance between the two stations could be computed. If, initially, Ground Stations were located over two accurately known geodetic control points established by more conventional means, then by flying across lines forming a series of triangles and using the mathematical technique known as trilateration, accurate geodetic control could be extended between landmasses, thus tying them to a common geodetic coordinate system. North America was connected to Europe through Baffin Island, Greenland, and Iceland using this technique. This connection is known as the North Atlantic Tie. Also, Europe was connected to Africa in this manner through Crete. A similar survey connected the islands of the Caribbean as far south as Trinidad to the U.S. mainland. This allowed a tie of North and South America independent from the conventional tie through Central America and contributed greatly to the strength of that tie. Primarily, however, this island survey was in preparation for the testing of our ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) fleet then under development. These islands would subsequently house a multitude of trackers and other sensors and become known as the Eastern Test Range. A similar set of surveys connected the western U.S. to the Pacific Islands as far west as the Kwajalein and Eniwetok Atolls and this gave us the Western Test Range. This latter survey was then extended south through the islands of the South Pacific and tied off in Australia; thus, effectively, tying North America with that continent.

 By the early 1960s the DOD (Department of Defense) had enough survey data to define and begin to use a single geodetic datum and coordinate system for targeting worldwide. The datum was known as WGS 60 (World Geodetic System 1960). This single system allowed accurate targeting of the ICBM fleet that was being developed and deployed concurrently. As an aside, it should be noted that as more survey data was collected and added to the mathematical solutions, at least three improved WGS's have been defined and used. The current version is known as WGS 84.

 Also in the '60s, the Air Force developed an updated version of HIRAN. They changed the operating frequencies, automated some functions and used later electronic technology. This improved version was known as SHIRAN ("S" band HIRAN). It did not replace HIRAN completely but was used in newer, higher flying aircraft as a supplement to the Photomapper's electronic surveying capabilities.

 In addition to their role in electronic surveying to connect widely separated landmasses, HIRAN/SHIRAN Ground Stations were also used to form trilateration networks extending geodetic control into virgin areas of the world where establishing control by ground based methods would be prohibitive, if not impossible, in terms of time, cost and effort. Ground Stations thus established would then be used, again by trilateration, to position photomapping aircraft taking photography of these virgin areas. By positioning these aircraft at the time of camera exposure, one was well on his way to being able to position the photography on the map datum being used; thereby allowing accurate maps to be produced for any number of applications. The resultant imagery was called HIRAN Controlled Photography or SHIRAN Controlled Photography. A nearly five-year effort in Ethiopia in the 1960s is an excellent example of this application of the Ground Stations.

 Still another use of HIRAN/SHIRAN was to position points of special interest on the earth. A HIRAN/SHIRAN equipped photo aircraft using two or more Ground Stations would fly repeated passes over the point in a flight pattern that would minimize errors when reducing the positional data and measuring on the resultant photography. This technique was called SCP (Secondary Control Point) positioning. A more challenging application of this technique was used in 1967 to position a moving US Navy research ship as it proceeded first inbound to San Juan, Puerto Rico across the Puerto Rican Trench and a few days later outbound along the same route. The ship was navigating using the new SINS (Ship's Inertial Navigation System) that was going into the FBM (Fleet Ballistic Missile) submarines of that time. The Navy was interested in determining the effects of the huge gravity anomalies associated with the Trench on the SINS performance. In this case HIRAN was the only system that could provide a positional accuracy standard against which to compare the SINS at great distances from land. The ship was tracked for over 16 hours while inbound and another 16 outbound four days later. Like the ICBM work for the Test Ranges, this FBM effort carried the very highest DOD priority. For this project Ground Stations were located on the barren, unpopulated island of Isla Mona to the west of Puerto Rico and on the vacation paradise of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to the east.

 A hybrid mission of HIRAN Controlled Photography and Secondary Control Point Positioning involved the countries of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The boundary between these two countries is defined as the "middle" of the Persian Gulf. The Saudis accused the Iranians of drilling offshore oil wells in their territory and of reaping the financial benefits. To resolve this issue would require determining the precise centerline of the Gulf and then documenting where all the oil derricks were relative to that line. The U.S. State Department got involved and they asked the DOD to resolve it. The tasking eventually was given to AST-4 (Aerial Survey Team-4) in Ethiopia. The resolution wasn't easy as International Border Law applied to countries bordering large bodies of sea water usually dictate measurements be relative to some tidal state. In this case it was low, low tide. So, the AST had to position four Ground Stations in these countries and fly HIRAN Controlled Photo of both coastlines at low, low tide. Since this state occurs so seldom and lasts for such a short period of time, this took periodic flights over several months. The resulting photo then defined the "Gulf" at that state, and the centerline could be mathematically determined. Next the AST had to fly Controlled Photo/SCP over the derricks to determine on which side of that imaginary line they fell. This project was a logistical nightmare for the Ground Station function because of having to locate suitable geodetic control in the area and then supporting the sporadic flight schedule; but the derrick issue was resolved.

 The very last mission supported by the HIRAN/ SHIRAN Ground Stations was in late 1973/early 1974. It was much like HIRAN controlled photography in concept, but in this case the imagery being positioned was SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar). The mission was to obtain SLAR imagery of the entire island of Puerto Rico from a specially equipped, Photomapping RC-130. This SLAR configured RC-130 was designated the AWTMS (All-Weather Topographic Mapping System). Four Ground Stations supported it-one near each corner of the island. It was a very successful demonstration of a system being developed to obtain imagery day or night and in any type of weather; and then to investigate the utility of such imagery in the mapping process. Because of the versatility of the system the entire island was covered in just a few days. From this prototype, similar systems were developed and were later flown in much higher flying, operational platforms.

 Enough on why these Ground Station Operators were needed and the types of projects on which they worked. The bottom line is they worked in many exotic locations the world over and on extremely high priority DOD projects. Pretty heady stuff!! But now lets hear the rest of the story.

 Because of the heavy temporary duty (TDY) nature of the Photomapping business, it was exempted by the Air Force from having to conduct any major unit training for their HIRAN/SHIRAN Ground Station personnel. All had completed Radio Operator School and then HIRAN/SHIRAN Operator training conducted by Air Training Command before reporting to their Photomapping unit. Most had also had at least one operational assignment as radio operators elsewhere. Theoretically, they were at least at the journeyman level when they reported and thus able to be used immediately on operational projects. This was good and bad. It was good for the unit as it had the flexibility of adding new personnel immediately to the TDY pool. It was bad for the individual as he frequently had minimum time to get settled at his new home station before finding himself on an airplane heading to some far-off corner of the world. To make matters worse, at the time of deployment neither he nor anyone else knew EXACTLY where he would be spending the next six months of his life.

 When deployed, Photomappers were organized into ASTs (Aerial Survey Teams). These were basically self -sufficient teams operating around the world and manned with enough aircraft and personnel to accomplish their assigned surveying and/or photographic missions. Occasionally a permanent change of station (PCS) cadre would head these ASTs, but primarily they were manned by TDY personnel on six-month assignments. Prior to the initial deployment of an AST, planners, using whatever crude maps, charts or recon photos that might be available, would select proposed Ground Station locations for the area being mapped. The goal in the planning was to keep the number of stations to a minimum. This was done by considering line-of-sight between the stations and the aircraft, signal masking by intervening terrain, and the geometric strength of the resulting network. That is, the stations had to be located so that the resultant trilateration legs would intersect in a manner that would minimize errors and thus enable specified survey and map accuracies to be met. Every AST would have a Ground Station Officer assigned, and he would always be a part of the Reconnaissance Team that would first visit the proposed locations to see if it were physically possible to occupy them; and if not, to propose alternate locations. Although a part of the team, he had little or no say regarding where the stations would go. His job was to analyze the area and decide just how he would get the Ground Station Operators and their equipment to the site and then keep them re-supplied for the time they were needed-often months at a time. This was a tremendous challenge, for if you will recall, in the period from the mid-'40s to the mid-'70s the places still requiring detailed mapping were among the most isolated in the world. And due to line-of-sight considerations, the Ground Stations had to be on the highest points in these desolate areas. Though he lacked authority in site selection, the Ground Station Officer (GSO) had one huge advantage. He was Mr. Moneybags! All GSOs were Air Force Purchasing Agents with the authority to beg, barter, hire, contract for, or do almost anything else needed to place and support his troops. Organic resources of the AST; e.g., helicopters or mission fixed-wing aircraft were used when practical, but this was not always possible. Some interesting examples of other means of support will be mentioned later.

 When a new HIRAN/SHIRAN Ground Station Operator would arrive at an AST operating location, he would be met by the GSO and briefed on the exact site that would be his home for the next several months. He would also meet the two other operators that would share his station. One would be another HIRAN/SHIRAN guy like himself, and the third would be a ground power specialist who would be responsible for operating and maintaining the generator that would provide the power necessary to operate the electronic equipment at the site. After a day or so to catch his breath and get organized, the three-man team and all their equipment would set off for their site. The needed gear would include the HIRAN/SHIRAN equipment and spares, a high frequency (HF) radio for communications with the AST and mission aircraft, an altimeter for determining station altitude, tents for housing themselves and their equipment, a gasoline powered electrical generator, and enough gasoline, food and water to last for at least a month. In addition, the Men brought enough personal belongings to provide at least a minimal level of comfort and hygiene. Under optimal conditions, the site would be accessible by helicopter and all this stuff could be flown in; but this was often not the case. The sites were frequently hundreds of miles from the AST operating base and getting there might involve using some combinations of aircraft, aircraft with skis or floats, boats, trucks, donkey trains, camel caravans, native bearers, and personal backpacking.

 By the time they arrived at their site the Guys were usually tired, but the newness of it all and the feelings of adventure kept the adrenalin flowing while they would set up their station. One of the first tasks after getting their equipment up and running would be to clear a helicopter landing site to be used for future re-supply. If there were indigenous people in the area, they could often be hired to assist in this task. Depending on local conditions, it was often also necessary to hire some of these locals to provide security for the site. For no matter how remote and inaccessible some of these sites seemed, once the word got out that Americans were doing something on their mountain tops, local people would inevitably show up to see what was going on-and they weren't always friendly. I'll mention some examples a bit later.

 Once the station was operational, a helicopter landing zone established, and security arrangements made, things settled into a routine. Along with the routine would come loneliness and boredom. Everyone welcomed the days his station was involved in the photomapping efforts and dreaded the days it wasn't. Although their rations were specially developed by the US Army Quartermaster to provide excellent nutrition and variety (and supposedly good taste), and in spite of the fact that they didn't have to repeat a dinner meal for 30 days, any diet of strictly dehydrated food got old very quickly. They could talk to the radio net-control station at the AST base of operations to order small replacement parts, personal items or other things they may need; but unless mission essential they never knew just when their order would be delivered. When it was, it would be on an opportune basis and by airdrop when a mission plane was in their area. At that time their incoming mail would also be dropped. Unless a station member had a medical emergency, the only time the Operators would see another American would be during the monthly, scheduled re-supply of their station-usually by helicopter. It was then that they could send outgoing mail to their loved ones and assure them they were ok-or not! So re-supply was a time to look forward to. In the meantime they tried to curry the favor of any indigenous people that might appear. Language was often a problem, but usually the people were friendly and became even more so if the men would share a little something from their rations with the local children. Since most natives did not have jobs as such, they were usually available and willing to work at very low "wages". Cash was of little use to them, so they were either hired through the local government who paid them in goods, or the GSO would barter with them directly and pay them in goods. Some of the most valued barter materials were tobacco leaves, canned monkey or other kinds of meat and any kind of a coin with a hole in it. These coins were then used to make necklaces-which were highly valued in most societies.

 Life on a Ground Station could be boring, rewarding, humorous, and tragic, but always interesting-at least in retrospect. One could write forever trying to describe the typical life on a Ground Station and still not convey the actual flavor. Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is to give examples of actual occurrences. In some cases, place names have been changed to protect the innocent!

 1. While HIRAN surveying between islands in the Pacific around the Hawaiian Islands, a Ground Station located on the Gardner Pinnacles was struck by a tsunami. The entire station was swept into the sea and one Ground Station Operator was drowned.

 2. While HIRAN surveying the islands of the West Indies in support of the development of the Eastern Test Range, it was necessary to place a ground station on the tiny and low island of Ave. This was to provide geometric integrity to this long, thin network. The island was so low and subject to such erratic tides and storms that it was frequently entirely submerged. To prevent a recurrence of what happened on Gardner Pinnacles, a ship was constantly kept anchored off the island in case emergency evacuation was necessary.

 3. The Galapagos Islands lay about 650 miles west of Ecuador. When HIRAN positioning those islands, the supply lines were long and slow-by ship. In order to speed things up, the AST Commander decided to position fuel on the islands to support the generators and any helicopters. The fuel was to be airdropped in large rubber bladders. On the initial attempt the bladder/parachute combination chosen proved to be woefully inadequate. The bladder burst! The Station site and the unique and fragile environment of the island were doused with aviation gasoline. Old Charles Darwin must have turned over in his grave! Soon, however, the AST got it right and fuel was successfully positioned on the islands by airdrop.

 4. Ethiopia was a fertile source for stories regarding life on a Ground Station because there were many sites (30 +), the AST was there for so long (4+ years), station elevations were so high (some over 12,000 ft.), and the country was so primitive and undeveloped. Of particular concern were stations located in the southern, Ogaden, region of the country bordering Somalia. There, roving bands of bandits called "shiftas" were a constant threat. In one instance a GSO and one of his Operators were returning from a site in a Land Rover. Because there were no roads, they were driving down a dry creek bed when they came upon a group of painted shiftas dancing around a large fire. Unable to drive out of the bed, they stopped. These men, who began beating on the vehicle with their fists and rocks, soon surrounded them. Their only path out was directly over the blazing fire! They accelerated through it and made their escape.

 5. Later the same Officer and an NCO were returning from reconning a potential ground station site in the Ogaden region. They were driving a Land Rover along a dirt jeep track when they noticed two men standing beside the road. When adjacent to the men, one of the shiftas produced a rifle he had concealed behind his back and opened fire on the vehicle. The Ground Station Men escaped, but not before the Officer received two gun shot wounds in his back. He was subsequently airlifted to the AST for medical attention.

 6. The shiftas' threat was so great in some areas that armed guards were required at the ground station sites. Typically, 10 -- 30 guards were provided by either the Ethiopian police or military. One site had 90. A dense brush fence as added protection also surrounded this station. One night a single shifta broke through the fence. Before he could threaten the ground station, the Ethiopian soldiers captured him. One of them tied the bandit to a tree and slit him open from stem to stern, completely eviscerating him. He was left tied to the tree as a warning to any others who might consider attacking the station.

 7. Imagine the water supply problem at a site with about 90 guards as well as the three Ground Station Operators. It was especially critical in the desert regions of the Ogaden. When nosing around their Station one day in such a location, the Operators found what looked to be a 5- inch pipe extending a short distance out of the ground. It was capped and locked. The locals told them that it used to be a water well drilled many years previously by an oil exploration company when they were exploring the area. However, they had capped it when they had removed their pumping equipment and left the area. The AST requested and was granted permission from the Ethiopian government to break the lock and investigate the well. The AST Commander then assigned the Station Operators and a particularly innovative pilot (an oxymoron?) the job of determining the utility of the well. The pilot asked one of the Operators to drop a stone into the pipe and note the time elapsed until it hit water. He determined it was about 1600 feet to the water. He then purchased about 1800 feet of small rope, a large pulley, and about 15 feet of plastic 4-inch diameter pipe. He fabricated a butterfly valve in one end of the pipe, and he and his materials were flown to the site. There he and the Ground Station Guys erected a teepee hoist frame over the well and suspended the pulley from it. He then calculated how long the 4-inch pipe should be to hold the near maximum load of water that two men could lift out of the well using the mechanical advantage of the pulley. He determined 12 feet was the answer. The rig worked perfectly and allowed nearly eight gallons of cool, clear water to be lifted at a time. Since most of the time the many guards had nothing else to do, the Operators kept them busy hoisting water and filling the water barrels. The site became entirely self-sufficient regarding water for their several months stay, and the natives inherited a fully functional well when the Station Guys left.

 8. The police or military guards provided by the Ethiopians at some sites were more of a nuisance than help. They frequently were armed with old, Italian rifles and had only one or two bullets each. One ingenious team just got rid of them and hired the "bad guys" (shiftas) to protect their site. They had no problems after that.

 9. At another Ethiopian site, one night the three men found their living tent infested with thousands of termites and a trail of thousands more headed their way. Having no insecticide, they sprayed the interior with gasoline and then dug a trench around the outside and filled that with the same fluid, hoping to kill or at least repel the critters. A bit later one guy switched on a flashlight. The resultant spark ignited the vapors from the gas; which in turn ignited the still liquid gasoline. All three men were badly burned-one seriously. They were able to call for help on their radio, but it took eight hours to get a helicopter to the site for their evacuation. It took another 10 to get them to a RC-130 capable airstrip and back to the AST location for proper medical attention.

 10. Still in Ethiopia, one day a freak, tornado-like twister hit a village at the base of a mountain being used for a HIRAN Ground Station. The twister destroyed several of the flimsy grass huts used by the villagers as houses. The villagers were certain the twister was caused by whatever it was the Ground Station Guys were doing up there. The natives climbed to the site armed with clubs, knives and rocks and demanded that the Operators leave immediately. The Station Guys radioed the AST for assistance. The AST immediately dispatched a helicopter to the site, picking up Ethiopian police on the way. The police were able to calm the crowd but could not alter their insistence that the station be abandoned. Because the site had very nearly served its purpose, it was evacuated within two days.

 11. While on a re-supply mission to Ethiopian Ground Stations, one of the helicopters touched down short of a tiny landing site located at the top of a significant upslope. The pilot instinctively applied power and shoved his rotors forward in an attempt to again lift-off. Because of the thin air at the station's high elevation, the necessary lift wasn't there and the rotor blades cut-into the canopy of the helicopter before it came to rest on the slope of the mountain. NO PROBLEM! The Ground Station Operators, aircrew, and nearly 200 local natives attached ropes to the chopper and manually pulled it up onto the landing pad where the necessary repairs could be made.

 12. One of the most publicized Ground Station stories from Ethiopia concerned a station unknowingly placed on the mountain-top home of a troop of baboons estimated to be 80-100 in number. One day this group attacked the station throwing rocks and sticks, baring their three-inch fangs, and screaming loudly. This was not a trivial situation as these animals are typically about four feet in height and males weigh up to 90 pounds. And, they are known as vicious fighters. The Station personnel radioed the AST for help. A mission RC-130 flying photo at the time was diverted to the site. After three, treetop passes over the area by this large and noisy aircraft; the frightened animals retreated into the forest and didn't bother the station again.

 13. At a southern Ethiopian site, a pride of lions came to visit while the station was supporting a mapping flight. The Ground Station Operators advised the AST of this via their HF radio and asked for instructions. The AST Commander advised them to continue manning their station. A few seconds later the AST heard, "Man our station, hell! There's a lion coming in the rear of our tent! We're out of here!!" The men fled down the mountain a safe distance until the lions moved on.

 14. Because of the high elevations found in Ethiopia and that country's proximity to the equator, the atmosphere is extremely thin. This causes large diurnal fluctuation in the temperature. At sites above 12,000 feet Station Personnel would almost cook on sunny days, be in the clouds on cloudy ones, and nearly freeze at night. The region around the city of Assab on the Red Sea is one of the hottest places on Earth inhabited by man. A site located in that area once recorded a temperature of 130* F. Again, at night the temps there would drop to near freezing.

 15. After a new Wing Commander had toured a few of the ground station sites in Ethiopia, he was shocked by the conditions in which these Ground Station People had to live. He asked how much per diem these men were paid for living like that for months at a time. He was told it was only $1.00 per day since government quarters (their tents) and government meals (their rations) were being furnished. He asked the AST Commander how this rate could be legally raised. The AST Commander responded that somehow commercially furnished quarters would have to become available to the Operators as an alternative; but given the remote location of the stations and the limited duration of their occupation, this would appear to be impossible. The Wing Commander told him to look into it and see what he could do. The AST Commander and Ground Station Officer radioed a message to all stations stating that if somehow commercial quarters could become available near their sites, they were authorized to use them and their per diem rate would be raised to $9.00. Using typical Ground Station ingenuity, within two weeks all sites had "commercial" quarters! The guys had asked the nearest natives they could find to build them a hut just like those they had built for themselves. Typically these were of stone at the higher elevations and thatched straw at the lower ones. The natives would do this for just a few U.S. dollar equivalents. These huts were then "owned" by the natives, but "rented" to the Ground Station Guys for a dollar or so a day. It was a win-win situation for all concerned!

 16. One of these "commercial" thatched straw huts mentioned above was built on stilts. To take advantage of the shade it offered, the men and often the guards would cook and eat their meals under the hut. Between cleanups this area would become littered with cooking utensils, food scraps and the like. Apparently attracted by the odor of food, the station was overrun by a pack of wild dingo dogs that proceeded to menace the men at the site and eat all the food and food scraps available at ground level. The men were effectively held captive for two days in their elevated hut until the dogs finally wandered off.

 17. At another of these stations the walls of the thatched hut comprising their living quarters became infested with immense black beetles. The beetles were largely nocturnal so not too troublesome during the day; but it was disconcerting to wakeup to find the mosquito netting, under which the Operators slept, covered with beetles. When this got too bad, they would just ask the natives to build them a new shelter and burn down the infested one-hopefully with the bugs still inside.

 18. In remote and isolated parts of Africa, it was clear that humans were definitely the interlopers. All kinds of wild animals were regular visitors at or near the ground stations. One site was actually nicknamed "Elephant Run" as it was on a well-established trail used by the wild elephants. Other animal visitors included baboons, gazelles, leopards, wild boar, lions, and several varieties of snakes-several of them deadly poisonous.

 19. Deadly snakes were not a problem only in Africa. At several sites along the Amazon and its tributaries in Brazil and French Guiana, during periods of flooding the Ground Station Personnel were less afraid of the rising water than they were of the snakes that would then invade their living quarters.

 20. At a site in Brazil, one man, on an isolated station developed acute appendicitis. He had to be carried by canoe manned by natives for 36 hours to reach a point where an aircraft could land, pick him up and get him to medical attention.

 21. On the ice cap of Greenland, ground station installation and re-supply was accomplished primarily by floatplanes or ski-equipped aircraft, but occasionally by dog sled.

 22. In spite of the fact that at the time of the Viet Nam War a rudimentary WGS had been developed, its significance and importance was lost on the average American fighting man and on most of its military leaders. Navigation systems located on one geodetic datum were being used to strike targets located on another datum, and the resultant misses went unexplained. Maps being used by the fighting forces were not yet on the WGS and the datum shifts for that area were not that well known and weren't being applied. Once the targeting problem was identified as being geodetic in nature, AST-3 was activated to help solve the related problems in Southeast Asia. The solutions included HIRAN electronic surveying.

 23. HIRAN ground stations in Viet Nam were again established on terrain high points to enable long electronic sight lines. These same high points were also popular with the ground forces of the Army and the Marines who had historically been taught to seize and hold the high ground. This led to interesting, but serious squabbles over jurisdiction. The Marine Commander of one unit told the Photomapping Recon Officer to, "Take that damn gizmo (HIRAN antenna) down! I don't care what you're doing. If you don't remove it, I'll have it shot down!!" The other services thought our troops were nuts. The Ground Station Guys would come into a battle area unarmed and with no combat training; they would erect a 50 foot antenna that could be easily used by the enemy as an aiming point; they would crank up gasoline generators; and they would ask that site security be provided to them. All this while the members of the other services were trying to be as unobtrusive and stealthy as possible. The Marines, especially, thought the Air Force was out to get them killed. Resourceful as always, the Ground Station Guys quickly identified the best way to get along at those locations was to not wear their Air Force uniforms and to exercise their better supply lines to get beer brought to these remote sites. They would then share it with the men of the other services. By doing that relationships improved and security was more willingly provided.

 24. At Vietnamese sites where adequate security did not exist for such an operation, the Ground Station Personnel had to help provide their own security. At one location in the extreme south of Viet Nam on the Cambodian border such a site was almost overrun by Viet Cong forces. Using borrowed weapons, the Ground Station Guys played a key role in repulsing the attack and were awarded the Bronze Star with V device (for valor) for their actions.

 25. Based on experiences such as the many above, several times over the years the parent Photomapping Organizations tried to get hazardous duty pay for the Ground Station Personnel. Each time, the request was turned down by Higher Headquarters on the grounds that there was nothing inherently hazardous about their job. It was just dependent upon the conditions where they were operating. That's true. Manning some stations in the South Pacific was like being on vacation and living in Paradise. In addition to being in the company of friendly natives, the men enjoyed wonderful weather in idyllic surroundings. Many Ground Stations were supported by ships of the Navy Oceanographic Office while their people also performed geodetic missions in the area. The Ground Station Personnel and the natives both looked forward to the arrival of these ships, as the sailors would invite everyone to come aboard to watch movies on the helo pad. Remote Easter Island was one of the most popular stations and Ground Station Operators would almost fight to get there.

 26. Since the Navy was so good to the Ground Station Guys of the Pacific AST, the AST would reciprocate when they could by providing their astronomic observers at our sites with air support whenever practical. Because of the high trees surrounding one island site, the Navy guys requested an airdrop of their supplies into the adjacent bay in waterproof containers. They would stand by in their boat to retrieve the stuff in a timely fashion. The drop was too good. It sank their boat!

 27. Although helicopter support for the Pacific AST was generally good, due to maintenance problems, heavy workload, site limitations, etc, it was not always possible to get helos to a specific site at a specific time. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, a max effort was made to get turkeys and all the trimmings to every Ground Station. This often meant throwing them out of RB-50s. It's rumored that more turkeys ended up on the bottom of the ocean and on mountainsides than in the Operator's bellies.

 28. Yes, life in the Pacific was generally good until 1962 when the AST was moved from Guam to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The sites on Papua and the island of New Britain were in some of the most remote and primitive places on earth. When the Recon Team went in with Australian Patrol Officers to a site right on the border of Papua and Dutch New Guinea, they discovered new tribes whose existence was not previously known. It turned out that these new tribes were the last in the area to practice cannibalism and headhunting. They smoked their dead to preserve them and kept them in a special hut. They would bring them out to be used in ceremonies. These tribes had domesticated the wild pigs. They would eat the sows as soon as they would bear a litter of young. Lactating women of the tribes would then use one of their breasts for their children and the other for nursing the baby pigs. One of these tribes did not take kindly to the idea of a new Australian Commissioner being assigned to their region, so they killed and ate him. In retaliation the Aussies "arrested" several of the locals and built a makeshift prison right at the HIRAN ground station as a deterrent to others that might get hungry for interlopers. How would you like to spend six months at that site? A second site located among cannibals was later established near a river on the southern coast of Papua. This was in the area famed for the disappearance of Nelson Rockefeller's son.

 29. In a related New Guinea incident, Ground Station Personnel were being lowered from a hovering helicopter on a jungle penetrator in order to begin clearing a HIRAN site prior to occupation. One Operator was knocked off the penetrator by the dense foliage and fell many feet to the ground, breaking his leg. He was unable to get back on the penetrator and back into the chopper. He was subsequently "captured" by members of a still practicing cannibalistic tribe. In great pain and unable to fend for himself, he had to depend upon these natives for survival. He was fed chicken heads and other meat of questionable origin until his rescue three days later by a ground rescue team.

 30. At yet another New Guinea site the Australians had to blow the top off a mountain with dynamite to clear an area for the station and a helo pad. The resultant area was too small for a helo to land, so the site had to be installed and re-supplied by a hovering chopper using nets to lower equipment and supplies. Because it was so small, the Ground Station Men had to lower their HIRAN antenna so the chopper could approach each time they were re-supplied.

 31. As in Africa, money, as such, was of little use to the natives of the South Pacific. They did, however, like the one-shilling pieces as they had a hole in the center, and they could string them and wear them around their necks. So, when they were hired they demanded to be paid in these pieces. Many tribes had a primitive counting system that consisted of four units: one, two, three and many.

 32. The South Pacific survey tied off in Australia. Ground Station life was again good there. Look for another reference to Australia a bit later in this article.

 Thus far we have talked about the job related functions of the Ground Station Operators and the environmental conditions in which they worked. As you can imagine there were a lot of hours during their six-month assignments when they were not required to work. What would they do then? After all, one can only read so many books and write so many letters before one's mind turns to other forms of diversion:

 1. During the regular daily radio check-in by one North African station, the net operator at the AST noticed an uncharacteristic slurring in the voice of the guy at the other end. After assuring there was nothing wrong at the site, he asked the cause of the slurring. It seems one of the operators had walked several miles out into the desert to a known track used by Bedouin camel caravans. There he had bartered for an intoxicating beverage of some kind. Since it was in a Muslim country where alcoholic beverages are not only against civil and religious laws, but possession of which is punishable by serious bodily harm, just what the drink was or its source was unknown. Perhaps fermented dates?

 2. Besides alcohol, what else would healthy young men go looking for? The radio net operators at the AST's were used to getting all sorts of requests from Ground Station Personnel; so when one in Ethiopia asked for some antibiotics that wasn't a surprise. The procedure was to then have the AST doctor radio back to the station and gather the information necessary to prescribe the most effective medicine. In this case he learned that the patient's symptoms clearly indicated a most common social disease, but since the site was very isolated and many miles from any known inhabitants, that didn't seem likely. When the doc asked if intimate contact had been a possible source of infection, he was told that was indeed possible. The correct antibiotic was air dropped the following day. One trusts the source was not the infamous baboons of that country. And one gives thanks that it was before the days of HIV and AIDS!

 3. At another Ethiopian site, the Men became aware that an English-speaking lady had recently come to work at a church mission in a village about 20 miles down the mountain from their station. One Guy was particularly eager to meet her so when he got a couple of consecutive days off, down the mountain he hiked-determined to make her acquaintance, if nothing else. When he didn't return in three days, he put his Buddies in a bind. They hated to report a Site-Mate absent from his station; yet if something bad had happened, they wanted help ASAP. They decided to notify the AST and they did. Before a rescue party could be dispatched, the Guy came stumbling in. It seems that walking the 20 miles to the village took longer than he figured. And his encounter with the lady had proven successful beyond his wildest dreams, so he stayed a bit longer than he should have. But most responsible for his tardiness was his not anticipating just how taxing a 20-mile hike, all uphill, can be after strenuous physical exertion!

 4. Also in Ethiopia, one site in the Ogaden was continually requesting more water. Given the temperatures mentioned earlier, at first the helo pilots didn't think much of it, so regularly flew in more. Then however, they noted similar desert sites didn't use a fraction of that used by this one. An informal investigation revealed that these Station Guys were trading water to a local sheepherder for the companionship of his women helpers.

 5. At yet another Ethiopian site, when its use was no longer required, the helos went in to remove the personnel and equipment. They found a beautiful young, non-native girl also at the site and wearing an USAF Academy T-shirt. No one wanted to admit knowing where she had come from or how she had gotten there, and she wasn't talking. The helo pilots didn't want to just leave her there, so they evacuated her as well as the Station Personnel. Speculation was that she had been smuggled onto the site by the Station Operators in an OEL (Organizational Equipment List) crate during installation.

 6. Unless you think unique female involvement in the lives of Ground Station Personnel happened only in Ethiopia, here are a couple more examples. In British Guiana (Guyana) a Ground Station Officer liked the area so much he took the $10,000 he routinely carried to finance Station support and used it to open a house of ill repute. (Supposedly NOT to support the Ground Stations!) He basically quit performing his Air Force job and lived like a king until the parent Photomapping organization dispatched another officer to find him and bring him back to the States.

 7. The last example concerns a site in Australia. One of the standing requirements for all ground stations was to obtain a fairly low level vertical photo and four oblique photos of the site (one flown at each cardinal heading of the compass) while the site was still occupied. The purpose of these photos was to document the exact point being positioned and to aid in recovery of the survey mark if someone should want to use it in later survey efforts. These photos were routinely processed by the photo lab at the AST and then inspected to see they were free of clouds and had the necessary resolution. Once the photos were accepted the station could then be removed, after it had served its purpose. The station being discussed was located well into the Outback, literally hundreds of miles from the nearest permanent civilization. Yet, when the photo lab personnel inspected the photos they clearly saw female underwear hanging from the tent and antenna guy wires. Not wanting to publish these photos, the AST radioed the site and asked the Operators to remove the underwear so they could come back the next day and retake the photos. At the same time they asked if one or more of the Operators had started wearing female undergarments. They were assured that wasn't the case and were told to have the air crew look closely the next day and it would see the source of the garments. As promised, the following day a typically uninhibited Aussie "sheila" was standing-sans underwear (or any wear for that matter)-outside the tent waving wildly to the air crew. She did agree to duck back into the tent while the pictures were retaken.

 Recall that the limiting factor in electronic surveying over long distances is electronic line-of-sight. If one could get their Ground Stations high enough and/or get the airborne system high enough, one would eventually be limited only by the earth's curvature. Under development in the 1970s, the GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites, orbiting at 11,000 miles above the earth, would allow us to attain that status. In anticipation of this, the Air Force deactivated its HIRAN/SHIRAN surveying capability in 1974. The first operational GPS satellite was launched in 1978. As for controlled photography, the GPS positioning capability could also be used by follow-ons to the highly classified, until recently, photo satellite systems such as CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD, which were already operational. Thus, the HIRAN controlled SLAR mission over Puerto Rico, previously mentioned, wrapped up the 30 years effort in electronic mapping by the Photomappers.

 Hopefully, this article provides an understanding of just what the Ground Station Guys did and gives a flavor for their six-month stints at some of their typical sites around the world. They worked on some of the highest priority projects of the Department of Defense. In fact, those supporting the intercontinental ties used in development of the World Geodetic Systems and those supporting the missile test ranges were in direct support of our ICBM fleet and carried the VERY highest Air Force and DOD priorities. The same is true of the short mission flown near Puerto Rico to support the Navy and its FBM fleet. But, because they were tucked away in such isolated places, those Men suffered from being "Out of sight, out of mind". The significance of the role played by the hardy and innovative Guys often went under-recognized by people both inside and outside the Photomapping communities; and thus it was certainly under-appreciated. Their job was clearly at the level of "Where the rubber meets the road". Without their Ground Stations, the long survey lines could not have been accomplished. Without the survey lines, the continents could not have been geodetically tied. Without the ties, the World Geodetic Systems could not have been developed. Without the WGSs, our ICBM and FBM fleets could not have been targeted to the necessary accuracies. And without the deterrent of these nuclear missile fleets, arguably, the Cold War with the Soviet Union would not have been won.

 These Men did not always enjoy what they had to do, but to a man were proud of what they accomplished under some truly challenging conditions. If one were asked to choose a motto for the group, he may well paraphrase one already adopted by the Marine Corps. It would describe them as:


Bill Sapp is a retired, 31-year veteran of the United States Air Force. He spent the last 12 of these years in Photomapping, where he was a Ground Station Officer and the Supervisor of, "Those Ground Station Guys."

Gordon Barnes is also retired Air Force; having served 28 years. He had nearly eight years in assignments related to aircraft Photomapping. Among those assignments was one as Chief of a Plans and Reconnaissance unit. In that capacity he led two recon teams and watched a few ground station installations.

Other former Photomapper contributors to this article were Ron Clisby, the website of Charles Hart,


Julian Higgins, Jimbo Kinter, Jim Kyle, Gene Miller, Dick Sliz, and Jim St.Clair.

©2005-Bill Sapp and Aerial Survey and Photomapping History