The overhauled dish and pedestal of the FPQ-6 radar at Pillar Point Air Force Station.
In order to prepare for one of the busiest launch schedules in decades, Team Vandenberg recently resurrected an extinct program called Range Downtime.
What makes this event so significant? It’s the first time in over five years the Western Range has been shut down for the sole purpose of performing much needed maintenance on many of its
launch support instrumentation systems. The Western Range was established in 1958 to provide spacecraft processing, launch and tracking facilities for the Department of Defense, civil,
commercial and foreign customers. It provides real-time range operations for space launch, inter-continental ballistic missile testing, and aeronautical operations.
During fiscal year 2004, the WR supported five ICBM test launches, five space launches, and 177 FA/22 test flights. The demanding ops tempo left little time between operations to perform
preventative and routine maintenance on the launch support systems, which typically average around forty years of age. And with 22 projected launches in just a nine-month window, the
maintenance outlook for 2005 was beginning to appear grim.
Instrumentation is a critical element in support of the WR mission and consists of tracking and surveillance radars, optical tracking systems, downlink telemetry systems, command
transmitters, control systems, data processing and weather systems. Many maintenance and modernization projects to support these assets require long durations of downtime, some extending for
weeks or even months. The constant utilization of these systems disallowed many of these projects to take place, and maintainers of the WR expressed their concern.
“If we don’t schedule the downtime, the downtime will eventually schedule itself,” said Captain Matthew Adams, 30th Range Management Squadron.
The idea of setting aside a block of range downtime was reborn during a weekly range stakeholder’s meeting where representatives from the range operations, maintenance, and contracting
communities come together to prioritize operations and ensure availability of WR assets for support operations. The stakeholders recognized that the most efficient way to accomplish the
major maintenance and upgrade programs was to consolidate them to the best extent possible. They recalled a time when this kind of downtime scheduling was commonplace. It didn’t take long to
get everyone on board with the idea to restore the practice.
However, this would prove to be no small feat. WR launch support systems aren’t limited to just Vandenberg proper. Besides North Vandenberg, South Vandenberg and San Ynez Peak, other
locations include Pillar Point Air Force Station, 23 miles south of San Francisco, Andersen Peak, 106 miles north of Vandenberg, the Naval Air Warfare Center at Point Mugu, and several
facilities located in the Hawaiian Islands. The Maintenance Operations Coordination Center coordinated, de-conflicted, and scheduled the maintenance actions between Team V and these
“The range downtime was an excellent team building exercise that, by design, required civil service, military, and contractor staff to work towards common goals in a very dynamic setting,”
said Mitch Harden, Western Range depot level maintenance manager.
Throughout the process, the WR never lost sight of its customer service focus, realizing that minimal inconvenience now could prove crucial to the customers later.
“If range instrumentation systems were to go down during a launch, it could lead to a catastrophic failure, costing billions,” said Maj. Glenn Hillis, 2nd Range Operations Squadron.
With that reality looming, the WR went “red” for maintenance, Nov. 29, 2004, through Jan. 14.
While some Team V members were taking it a little easier during the holiday season, many others worked extremely hard to perform the maintenance tasks and modernizations at hand. Space Lift
Range Standardization Contract and the Western Range Operations, Communication and Information accomplished unscheduled repairs on range systems. SLRSC carried out both engineering and
maintenance projects, Lockheed Martin executed range standardization and automation engineering projects, and 30th Civil Engineer Squadron performed planned maintenance and facility system
upgrades as well. When it had all been said and done, 376 preventative maintenance inspections and 1,578 periodic maintenance actions were completed, along with a major overhaul of the dish
and pedestal of the FPQ-6 radar at Pillar Point Air Station. The concept of scheduled range downtime had been resurrected. The idea of incorporating this type of downtime regularly was well
received throughout the chain of command, from the 30th Space Wing Commander, to the 14th Air Force Commander, as well as the Major Command.
As such, range downtime has been forecast and scheduled for the next three years. It will allow timely completion of standardization and modernization projects. The more the concept is
utilized, the less downtime that will be needed because once it’s a standardized practice, preventative and routine maintenance actions will remain on track and won’t get backlogged.
Vandenberg continues to lead by example and set the standard for others. The Eastern Range at Patrick AFB has followed suit and is also implementing programmed range downtime for their
“Team Vandenberg is very proud of what we do,” Major Hillis said. “We are constantly seeking ways to minimize range downtime, extend the lifetime of our launch support systems and improve
our customer service. We recognize we have the best job in the Air Force, and it takes the work of the entire team, from the newest Airman to the general officer to keep the WR operating
optimally. By drawing on our vast experience base, thinking outside of the box and working together, one team, one fight, we assure the mission of Air Force Space Command, ‘To defend the
United States of America through the control and exploitation of space.’”