Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cape Charles Air Force Station

Between 1952 to 1981 the Cape Charles Air Force Station was located at the very tip of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. It was a radar squadron that was one of a number of radar squadrons in existence during the cold war.  Every two hundred miles around the border and within the United States was a Radar installation that provided complete radar coverage of anything that might enter the United States air space. 
In talking about any military subject it is difficult not to use the acronyms and initials they are famous for using. 

The Cape Charles Air Force Station (AFS) was manned by the 771st Aircraft Control and Warning (AC&W) radar squadron.  This Unit and two other SAGE (semi-automatic ground environment) units (the 701st Radar sq. at Fort Fisher N.C. and the 770th radar squadron at Fort Meade AFS MD.) were part of the Washington Air Defense Sector (WAADS) 

The Cape Charles AFS had about 200 men assigned to it.  Since they were a self sufficient town within their selves they had a wide arrange of military specialties from cooks, police, motor pool, power plant personnel, supply, medics, administration, fire department, radar maintenance, and radar specialists.  They were operational 24 hours a day.  The men were mostly young and single so some would marry local girls and refresh the gene pool in the area.
Radar squadrons due to their smaller size usually did not have Doctors and Chaplains stationed at them.  Instead they had a circuit rider system.  Cape Charles Air Force Station (AFS) had a Chaplain who would monthly visit this site and the other two radar sites in his thousand mile circuit (Roanoke Rapids AFS and Ft. Fisher AFS) .

The site had three radar towers, a number of barracks, administration building, dining hall, power plant, a base exchange, recreational  hall, library, movie theater, housing for married personnel families, and an airfield.  It also had it’s own post office, which was a branch of the Cape Charles post office.  Mrs. Elizabeth M. Brown, wife of Sgt. J. T. Brown was the first postmaster sworn in 1962.

There were three radars at the installation, one would search a 360 degree area and two would determine the height of aircraft.  Usually inside of Radomes (bubbles) that covered the antennas, the search radar antenna would constantly revolve sending out an electronic beam, any airborne object that is in the beam would reflect back to the antenna where it is converted to a geographic location and displayed on the scopes in the operational building. The height finder radar (can be recognized as a constant rocking banana shaped antenna) computes the altitude above the terrain and together the two systems gives the Director of Operations complete knowledge of the position, range and height of the airborne object.  If it was not a known aircraft the director would scramble fighter aircraft from Langley Air Force Base to intercept and report back what the airborne object is.

In addition to the three main radars at Cape Charles AFS there were three smaller gap filler radars that automatically feed data to Cape Charles from their unmanned positions.  The Gap filler radar only had about a 50 mile range and was used to “fill in” radar coverage in areas where there was a high expectation of an air attack route toward a major city or government installation or there was some interference with the normal radar detection.  The locations were; Elizabeth City, N. C., Temperanceville, VA., and Bethany Beach DE.  The most noticeable one was the Temperanceville location, a small block building with an exposed revolving antenna that sit alongside the south bound lane of Rt13.  Today it is in private ownership and has no radar equipment. The Bethany Beach location was really between Bayard and Ocean View and was visible from that road.   Today it has been torn down with the exception of a small shed.
Above the old gap filler radar building about 2 miles south of Temperanceville as it is today. 
After a great deal of money was spent on this radar site, the Cape Charles AFS was shut down in 1981.   About 5,000 different Airmen served at the station over it's 30 year history.
In 1984 the US Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the Cape Charles AFS site from the military and established the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.


Larry McC said...

Very Interesting well done article.

Howard said...


Dang Yank said...

I enjoyed your write-up and photos. I was stationed there after technical school as a young two stripper from 1969 to 1972. I worked in the "block house" as a "Data Processing Repairman". Thank you for evoking fond memories.