Rocky start for radar atop Black Mountain

Posted by David Middlecamp on April 25, 2014 

Office chief Michael T. Wise stands in front of the FAA radar tower on Black Mountain east of Pozo.


Ever wondered what the golf ball-shaped structure is at the top of Black Mountain? It can be seen atop the 3,625-foot peak in the La Panza range between Pozo and Highway 58.

The facility replaced the expensive Air Force radar station on the North Coast. It also is a part of the civilian air traffic control system.

Cambria Air Force Station was a picturesque location just south of town overlooking the ocean. The isolated facility had a military staff of 90 plus 25 civilians. It had a barracks, mess hall and even a bowling alley.

According to a Feb. 12, 1980, story by Judith Walthers Von Alten, Cambria AFS cost $1.6 million annually to operate.

With the opening of the Pozo facility, new technology allowed staff reductions to 13 FAA technicians and six Air Force and one civilian supply clerk. Most of the data would be relayed to control centers Palmdale and Fremont.

Construction materials were hauled up a rutted 7-mile road.

Sometimes the road to saving money costs money.

On Aug. 1, 1980, Telegram-Tribune reporter Ted Jackovics wrote why a neighbor with rock-crushing machinery could be a problem:

Unsteady power plagues radar site

Electrical problems at the Federal Aviation Agency's radar station near Pozo have caused $100,000 damage to equipment and delayed by at least 3 1/2 months the closing of Cambria Air Force Station, the Telegram-Tribune has learned this week.

Thursday, an official of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which supplies electricity to the site, asked for a meeting with government officials after it received a letter from the U.S. Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The letter said the delay in closing Cambria AFS is costing the Air Force $120,000 a month. An Air Force source in Virginia said Thursday about $1,700 a day is spent to operate Cambria AFS. That doesn't include salaries of civilian and military personnel.

The Air Force planned to close Cambria AFS July 15 as part of a nationwide program designed to cut costs by combining air traffic control and military air defense radar operations.

But the Air Force has been unable to operate a heightfinder radar it added to the FAA site atop the 3,600-foot Black Mountain, officials said.

When the Air Force Turns on its radar at the Black Mountain site — to be called Paso Robles Air Force Station — low voltage and fluctuating voltage problems affect the system, said Capt. Gary Hoffman of Headquarters Tactical Air Command at Langley AFB, Va. So the indicators that give precise information of aircraft altitude must be recalibrated each time the radar is used, he said.

An FAA official said Tuesday that more than $100,000 of the agency's radar tubes at Black Mountain have been damaged in recent years, but electrical problems have not seriously affected the FAA's radar operations.

The FAA search radar tracks civilian and military traffic with 250 miles and sends the information to air control centers at Fremont and Palmdale.

The Air Force heightfinder radar data would be added to FAA search radar data to guide military fighters to intercept unidentified aircraft.

The Air Force and California National Guard keep two F-106 fighter-interceptors on five-minute alert at Castle AFB in Merced, George AFB in Victorville and at the Fresno Air National Guard Base.

Hoffman said the Air Force found a transformer-regulator Thursday at an inactive radar site in Michigan and plans to install it at Paso Robles AFS as a temporary solution to the voltage problems.

Responsibility for problems at the radar site apparently has not been resolved between government and PG&E officials.

Donald L. Kennady, PG&E's district manager in San Luis Obispo, said PG&E plans to meet with Air Force and FAA officials to clarify the new electrical power demands and problems on the site.

Kennady said his understanding of the project and its problems is limited, partly because the PG&E official who has been the primary contact with the government is on vacation. Kennady said there is disagreement among PG&E officials about possible solutions to problems on the site.

One of the possible causes of the Black Mountain problems is a voltage drop when air conditioners used to keep electronic equipment from overheating are turned on, Kennady said. Also, voltage fluctuates at Black Mountain when Kaiser Sand & Gravel turns on equipment to run a rock crusher several miles away.

Air Force officials hope to close the search radar at Cambria AFS Aug. 15, but they will maintain the heightfinder there until Nov. 1, when equipment for the "interim fix" will be installed at Paso Robles AFS, Hoffman said.

Kennady said some of the difficulties with the project are "probably due to communications problems" among PG&E officials and between the Air Force, FAA and PG&E.

An air force officer at Air Defense/Tactical Air Command Headquarters at Colorado Springs, who asked not to be identified, had a similar view.

He said a recent Air Force reorganization, which involved the former Aerospace Defense Command becoming a part of the Tactical Air Command, probably contributed to the situation.

"It's incredible that there should be such a lack of planning, especially since most of the nation has already been hooked into the Joint Surveillance System," he said.

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