Clear Air Force Station, Alaska
Clear Air Force Station has a rich history with very humble beginnings. The area's first permanent landmark was the Alaska Railroad whose line from Anchorage to Fairbanks was completed in 1915. Rumor has it that operations began in the Clear area when a small dirt landing strip was constructed alongside the railroad in World War II to aid pilots ferrying P-39 and P-63 fighter planes to Russia. During the post-war period, Clear served as a gunnery range for the Army Air Corps, and later as a divert field for Air Force aircraft operating in Alaska. The real estate was known as "Clear Air Force Auxiliary Field," a part of Ladd Field in Fairbanks, current-day site of Fort Wainwright.
The history of Clear as a radar site really began in 1957 with the Soviet launch of Sputnik. The US could no longer ignore the threat of Soviet ICBMs, and the early detection of enemy launches became a national priority. In 1959, a 10x40 mile strip of wilderness at Clear was appropriated to become Site II of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). Site I was already under construction at Thule, Greenland, and Site I II would soon follow at Fylingdales-Moor, Scotland. A humble camp area was erected adjacent to the railroad, and groundbreaking for the new radar took place in May 1959. Over the next two years, construction would continue on the three massive detection radars that would become Clear's trademark. The radars, designed by GE and MIT's Lincoln Labs and built by RCA, measure 165x400 feet, and weigh 2,000,000 lbs apiece. Considering there were no major roads in the area at the time, the construction of Clear was an enormous undertaking with a final price tag of $360,000,000.
In addition to the technical site (the area containing the radars, radar support buildings, and power plant), two permanent dormitories, a mess hall, recreation area, and administrative area (collectively known as the composite site) were also completed nearby. Initial operational capability was achieved on July 1, 1961, and full operational capability was declared three months later. In November 1961, the Air Force's Air Defense Command accepted the facilities from Air Force Systems Command who had been overseeing construction. The responsibility for operation lay with the 2nd Detachment of the 71st Missile Warning Wing. Although the site belonged to the Air Force, civilian contractor personnel actually performed the missile-warning mission until 1964, when Air Force personnel finally permanently manned the Tactical Operations Room (TOR).
In 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake, the second largest earthquake ever recorded, shook Alaska. Although no casualties were sustained, the earthquake caused the site to "go red" (unable to perform the mission) for six minutes. Although designed to detect incoming missiles, Clear's radars were also useful in tracking satellites in low-earth orbits. Further improving this capability, as well as providing enhanced accuracy of launch and impact predictions, was the mechanical tracking radar, an 84 foot diameter radar on a moving pedestal housed in a 140 foot diameter radome. The tracker became operational in 1966. On January 1, 1967, Det 2 became the 13th Missile Warning Squadron. One of the squadron's first acts was to provide emergency shelter to 216 refugees from Fairbanks and the surrounding area when a devastating flood struck the region in August 1967. That same year, the squadron was given funding for additional building construction. Despite the new construction, many of the "temporary" buildings from the original camp area are still in use today.
Throughout the '60s and early '70s, Clear played a part in a series of experiments affecting its radars. One such experiment was conducted by the University of Alaska, which injected sulfur hexafluoride into the upper atmosphere to see if the aurora could be dissipated or intensified. 1970 also marked the first of Clear's Outstanding Unit Awards.
In 1971, the 13th MWS was reassigned from the 71st Missile Warning Wing to the 14th Aerospace Force. The '70s also saw a number of firsts at Clear, including the assignment of its first female officer in 1973. In the same year, the 13th MWS was awarded its second Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. The 13th was reassigned from Air Defense Command to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) through 15th Air Force in 1979. In 1981, Clear underwent a major modification when it was feared that the radome, housing the tracker radar, was unsafe (a nearly identical radome had recently burnt to the ground at Thule). This project saw the disassembly of the tracker, the demolishing of the existing radome, the construction of a new radome, and the reconstruction of the tracker.
The 13th was again reassigned on 1 May 1983, this time to Space Command's 1st Space Wing. Another first at Clear, which received a lot of local publicity, was the first all-female crew, which pulled a shift on 28 February 1986. When Thule and Fylingdales were converted to phased-array radar systems, Clear became the last mechanical missile warning site in the US. It was decided that Clear would be upgraded with a phased-array as well, and the Clear Radar Upgrade (CRU) was born.
Rather than build a completely new radar, the CRU utilized existing radar components from the deactivated PAVE PAWS SLBM warning site at El Dorado, Texas. Ground was broken for the new radar in April 1998. The new radar is known as the Solid-State Phased-Array Radar System (SSPARS--pronounced ES-pars). On 15 December 2000, after nearly 40 years of operation, the last of the original BMEWS radars ceased transmitting, and the SSPARS began 24-hour operations. Initial Operational Capability was declared on 31 January 2001.
More recently Clear underwent another metamorphosis. In 2001 Clear began its transition from and Active Duty, dependent restricted, remote short tour to a full time Active Alaska Air National Guard unit. Despite the many hurdles, Clear celebrated the historic standup of the 213 Space Warning Squadron on 30 August 2006. This marks the first time a Guard unit has taken on a mission of this type. Clear is now comprised of Active Duty Air Force, Alaska Air National Guard, Canadian Air Force, civilian, and contractor personnel.