For those of you unfamiliar with the Disney E Ticket , it was the ticket used to ride the most expensive and thrilling rides. In refering to an experience, the phrase "That was an E ticket ride" usually means a fantastic experience. That's what the Automated Flight Operations Center (AFOC) was for me. It was one of the two most challenging development project that I have ever undertaken.
In 1995, I was asked by my manager to travel to Ft Irwin, CA to speak with the Post's Aviation Officer about a system he wanted. Ft Irwin is the National Training Center for armored units and training includes air defense. CPT Tony Moon was a college graduate with an information technology degree. As a result, he was able to articulate his needs well.
In addition to a myriad of other lesser requirements, AFOC was to solve an aviation communication coverage problem. Fort Irwin is much like Afghanistan in that it is mountainous with valleys that defy line of sight. Prior to AFOC, aviation units, mostly helicopters, could communicate with Air Traffic Control in only about 30% of the post. Aviation communications is important to the US Army. It is especially important at the National Training Center (Fort Irwin). If a helicopter crashes, medical teams have about 20 minutes in which to get to survivors. Injuries, coupled with the severe environment (115° +), can cause shock to settle in quickly and fatally. Thus the drive to improve communications. In addition, visiting aviation units found flight dangerous without flight following, and reported their concerns quite passionately. The result was a Commanding General interest in the problem.
Two distinct tasks needed to be completed.
Three communication sites were chosen: two existing (Radio Hill and TV Hill) and a new one (LFA 12.5) in the mountains bordering on Death Valley. In the Live Fire Area (LFA), troops are allowed to open fire at will. Tanks also camouflage themselves by digging into the ground. With this in mind, it was necessary to locate the LFA 12.5 site in the mountains, north of the LFA (overlooking Death Valley). Because unauthorized personnel were to be restricted from entering the communications site, the site was located where it was only accessible by helicopter. These factors affected the choice as to how to connect the Northern communications site with the Post fiber optic backbone (the carrier for both voice and radio control).
A local contractor Ken Curran Electric won the competition to refurbish the existing sites. A contract with Southern California Edison provided the solar power and a contractor for the third site (LFA 12.5).
The process of providing the computer system infrastructure began with the purchase of a Digital Equipment Corporation Alpha server and 15 workstations. The workstations were connected to the server by a Local Area Network located within the Aviation facilities at Bicycle Lake Army Air Field. That LAN, in turn, was connected to the Post fiber optic backbone. The fiber optic backbone was extended to the two existing communication sites. To connect the Live Fire Area site with the Post fiber optic backbone, a microwave facility was installed.
The two existing sites were totally refurbished and connected to the Post fiber optic backbone by the local contractor. The new site was built from scratch, including leveling the top of the mountain. I oversaw the installation of two solar powered buildings (converted shipping containers); the installation of a microwave link that connected the site to the Post fiber optic backbone; and the installation of the site antennae. All material was transported by helicopter.
Remote radio control (RRC) consisted of hardware, firmware, and software. The major components were
The radios chosen for use at the communication sites were standard US Army aviation radios: ARC-186 , ARC-164 and GRT-21. The normal control sets that changed each radio's mode, frequency, etc. could not be used because to do so would require a significant bandwidth for each radio controller. Rather, a local engineering firm, Event Horizons , designed and built the radio remote control hardware that allowed the Automated Flight Operations Center user to control the radios. The hardware consisted of a rack-mounted frame (one per communication site) and a module (one per radio at each communication site). Slots in the frame accepted up to fifteen modules with each module connected to a radio. Frames were connected to the fiber optic backbone either directly (as in the case of Radio Hill and TV Hill) or though a microwave system. At the AFOC server site, the frames are connected to a crossbar. The engineering firm and I agreed upon a command set that would be exchanged between the frames and the server using TCP/IP. Through the frames, the AFOC user could turn radios on and off; enable transmission; activate guard mode; change modes; change frequencies, activate squelch; etc. All remote radios were controlled through the server. On the client side, Graphical User Interface controls governed the operation of the radios. Not only could specific microphones be connected to one or more radios, but the user could modify the behavior of any radio. After remote radio control was installed, the coverage was raised to 80%.
AFOC also provided real-time display of the Post-wide HANDAR weather sensors and provided support for the local US Air Force Weather Detachment.