Hill's radome gets a facelift with new material technology, maintenance process

  • Published
  • By Todd Cromar 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Sitting atop the north ridgeline overlooking the mouth of Weber Canyon at Hill Air Force Base sits a radome structure that is the test and engineering facility for the North American continents early warning radar defense system, known as the North Warning System.

Throughout the last several months, this unique structure has undergone a facelift of sorts, and is being used to test new exterior radome technology and a new maintenance procedure, which will be implemented at all radar locations in the future.

Corrosion and structural maintenance and sustainment of these facilities falls under the Tactical Shelters, Radomes, and Towers program office at Hill AFB, whose mission is diverse, directly supporting and maintaining a wide spectrum of DoD assets.

“The tower at Hill is the engineering facility for the AN/FPS-117 surveillance radar, which is very large and powerful, similar to those that operate in Alaska, Canada and Hawaii,” said Evan Tinkham, TSRT equipment specialist.

The North Warning System tower facilities were constructed and brought online between 1954 and throughout the 1960s to detect, watch and monitor adversary aircraft and naval activities near the nation’s borders.

“These original radomes were built with many individual fiberglass panels, bolted together with no insulation,” said Tinkham. “While they served well and did the job, they are in need of replacement, as they are all about 40 to 50 years old.”

Maintenance is required on the radomes every two years, due to the extreme climate and harsh weather conditions that exist at most of the far northern-tier location radar sites.

Repair work has consisted of patching fiberglass and preforming a complete resurface of each panel with waterproofing chemicals over the entire exterior of the radome.

Often, due to poor conditions at many of these radar site locations, crews only have about a 45-day period to accomplish required maintenance, which includes time spent waiting in hotels for short periods of favorable weather.

To extend the life of the existing radome facilities, new technology was pursued as part of a small business innovative research project, which resulted in a contract award to Ebert Composites Corporation.

Ebert developed a new and more advanced composite radome panel, where the waterproofing component is infused directly into the material during the manufacturing process, said David Johnson, president of the company.

Under the supervison of the TSRT engineering team, phase 2 of the project proceeded with the installation of these new panels, which piece together to form the exterior structure.

“At the start of phase 2 six months ago, the original plan at Hill AFB was to complete all panel replacement work outside,” Johnson said, ”By chance, this also coincided with the beginning of record-breaking winter here in northern Utah, providing the necessity and unique opportunity to invent a new installation process as well.”

Ebert worked with Saint Gobain Aerospace, also part of the Phase 2 contract, and manufacturer of inflatable radomes, to demonstrate the idea for a temporary inflatable work enclosure that would protect workers from the elements when preforming radome maintenance.

“This temporary shelter is kind of a vinyl replica of our inflatable radomes, which are made of a Kevlar-woven, Teflon-coated fabric and rated for more than 200 mph winds, with the correct pressure inside,” said Jerry Mirando, Saint Gobain engineering services group lead.

The TSRT engineering team believes these major developments made by their partner companies will enable them to significantly increase efficiency through saved time and cost, allowing them to reallocate manpower and resources across the many other mission requirements under their umbrella of responsibility.

“We are testing out ideas with this prototype effort and if they succeed, we may be able to implement them at all North Warning System facilities,” said Tinkham. “We should be able to push maintenance cycles out quite a bit or possibly even eliminate them down to inspections.

“If repair is necessary, we simply just replace individual panel sections inside a temporary controlled environment, eliminating a significant amount of time wasted waiting for good weather windows,” he said.