Pubdate: Thu, 01 Mar 2001
Source: Airman (US)
Copyright: 2001 Air Force News Agency
Address: 203 Norton St. San Antonio, TX 78226-1848
Fax: (210) 925-7219
Author: John B. Dendy, IV, Tech. Sgt., USAF


Aerostats Positioned 10,000 Feet Over America's Southern Border Provide 
Effective Intrusion Alarms

Hey, hey hey, drug smugglers. Say "hi" to Fat Alberts - burly 
remote-controlled balloons officially known as the tethered Aerostat Radar 

Aerostats perform very unusual and highly sensitive communications duties 
for elite government law enforcement and broadcasting organizations in 
situations where no other practical way to do a job exists.

Like a flying intrusion detector, 11 aerostats with inboard radars troll 
for drug-hauling aircraft, along an arc that stretches from Puerto Rico to 
Yuma, Ariz. In the early 1990s, one aerostat started flying the powerful 
antenna for a Voice of America-like TV station, TV Marti. The daily 
broadcasts show and tell the people of Cuba what their strongman doesn't 
want them to know.

Aerostats are packed to their fins with special radar payloads that would 
have mere hot air balloons, airships or blimps hissing with envy. Airmen - 
retired and active-duty - are involved. A contracted team of 30 people runs 
each radar site. Pairs of ground radar airmen visit those outposts for 
quality assurance. A few calibrate the sensitive onboard gear each year.

Those airmen nurture the future of counterdrug aviation's front line in the 
United States. America's current 12-ship aerostat force runs on gasoline, 
helium and oxygen to stay aloft. There are three sizes of aerostats, but 
soon there will only be one, because payload sizes have shrunk. Expect each 
of today's federal aerostats to be twice as big as a Goodyear blimp within 
five years.

The current Fat Alberts use 275,000 to 590,000 cubic feet of helium. The 
420,000 size will be the norm, said retired Chief Master Sgt. Stan Zduniak, 
the tethered aerostat radar system program manager. He and most of the 
military team work for the Air Combat Command Program Management Squadron, 
Newport News, Va.

Most balloons "hang around" for five years. When the TV Marti aerostat was 
replaced last year, a quality assurance team accompanied retired Chief 
Master Sgt. Mike Pallone, director of engineering and technical operations, 
Office of Cuba Broadcasting, to view the new aerostat at Tethered 
Communications in Elizabeth City, N.C.

Fat Alberts come to life - thanks to laser cutting and chemical bonding 
processes - on the spacious production floors there or at ILC Dover, in 
Dover, Del. The newest aerostat is up and running fine, Pallone said.

Airborne intrusion system The Treasury, Justice, Transportation and Defense 
departments' ability to deter drug cargo smugglers depends on an airborne 
intrusion system. Since America's southern flank isn't exactly endowed with 
high-altitude peaks to place such radars on, hovering aerostats with 
onboard radar do the job.

Fat Albert's radars work with fixed-wing aircraft radar, to show the 
threats in North America's skies. Airmen and federal agents use the live 
radar data feed to distinguish airborne drug planes from the clutter of 
daily air traffic headed for America from the south.

The sum of those sensor warnings translates into a call for U.S. Customs, 
Border Patrol, Coast Guard or Air Force aircraft to meet airborne threats 
that inevitably turn up onscreen. Examples of threats range from Payne 
Stewart's ill-fated jet, to pilots making airdrops and strange stops under 
falsified flight plans.

Federal responders include the Florida Air National Guard's F-15 fighter 
airmen, on air defense alert duty at Homestead Air Reserve Base near Miami 
[see "FANGS Bared," December 1999].

Our man at TV Marti The TV Marti program that beams into Cuba is the only 
part of the government broadcast portfolio that requires help from an 
aerostat. The station's original single-channel antenna went "up in the 
air" on a Fat Albert in 1992, Pallone recalls from his compound at the 
Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Miami.

"Our mandate is telling the people of Cuba what their government won't tell 
them," he said. Then he detailed how the federal government came to 
broadcast his station's programming from mangroves in Florida into Cuba, 
from a big balloon.

Intrepid staffers at the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency examined their 
options with Pallone, the man hired to mastermind the technical sides of 
their TV station. Mounting the TV antenna on a plane or a boat was 
outmoded. It would be pricey and place people in harm's way. Fat Albert 
provided them with a technical solution.

"To obtain a line-of-sight signal into Cuba, I would need a 10,000-foot 
tower stand. The guy wires would stretch several miles in three 
directions," Pallone said. "That's not practical, so we fly at 10,000 feet 
and put our signal into the center of Havana."

The TV Marti signal is unconventional. Information now rains down into Cuba 
on three channels. Since the balloon moves like a kite at 10,000 feet, the 
payload compensates by panning its TV beam to lock on the target. The 
combination of Fat Albert, three channels and herky-jerky movement has 
Castro's jammers gagging to stop the truth from connecting with viewers.

Under a separate contract with Lockheed-Martin Corp., Pallone's people take 
care of the custom UHF system that flies on a Fat Albert. It's a 
1,200-pound payload Pallone developed with his chief engineer, Ray Ulrick.

Inside Fat Albert Similar in size to the TV antenna, each aerostat radar is 
a work of art. The rig hangs upside down on a truss inside the tethered 
titan, like a sleeping bat. It spins from that position, said Staff Sgt. 
Brian Lavigne, a ground radar airman and aerostat quality assurance evaluator.

To compensate for the wind movement, a system of gyros work with 
direction-finding beacons. Fat Albert constantly updates and rights itself, 
so radar controllers know what direction is north.

"Working on fixed ground radar, we didn't have that problem. We got our 
compass out, we aligned the radar to north, and we were done. You don't 
realize anything exists like this until you get the job. It's unique, but 
reliable," Lavigne said.

Servicing an unmanned aerostat makes for some interesting ground duty. 
Imagine an entire aircraft darting about the tarmac in the slightest wind, 
like a greased weather vane. To control this darting, the balloon's nose 
rotates on a mooring tower, and the rear wags with brute force on a 
custom-curved steel monorail. People enter the aerostat through what is 
essentially a large black cloth bag. To climb onboard, technicians snub the 
rambunctious radar flyer with strategically laced ropes, like the little 
Lilliputians who worked on Gulliver.

Inside, a technician checks the radar payload. She can hear people talking 
outside, on the ground, 20 feet below. Her work compartment is sealed from 
the helium hull. If not, she would speak in a squeaky soprano voice.

Like most technicians, she carries a respirator pack, radios and a knife. 
If something unsafe happens, she can cut the gore fabric and tumble out 

The aerostats have weather limitations, but their $500-per-hour cost is the 
lowest for low-level radar surveillance data, said Ron Morrow, site manager 
at Cudjoe Key, Fla.

The 2001 aerostat operation and modernization program budget is just over 
$42 million. A five-year upgrade program keeps the aerostat community busy, 
said Maj. Antone LeFevere, surveillance division chief at Air Combat 
Command's Program Management Squadron.

"We're putting money into standardization," he said. "It's watching over 
us, and it works."

Fat Albert blockhouse tales

Sometimes, particularly during bad weather, Fat Albert wants to leave his 
pad - badly.

Fat Albert and his tether broke loose from the pad during a storm at Cudjoe 
Key, Fla., in 1984. Away he went, eventually lifting fishing and military 
boats a few feet from the sea, while several skippers cut the tangly tether 
away from their vessels. A Navy jet had to shoot down Fat Albert.

 From that experience, experts built portable flight control signal boxes 
that can be loaded into trucks, boats or helicopters, and guide Fat Albert 

Several years later, they had an opportunity to test the box.

A TV Marti aerostat and 20,000 feet of cable broke, heading for the 
Everglades. An electronic technician chased the aerostat to the Everglades 
by helicopter.

Technicians sent signals, and dumped helium from Fat Albert's hull. The 
aerostat landed on trees in the Everglades. The contract team rappelled 
into the Everglades from helicopters, where it took a week to recover the 
balloon. There was minor damage to the television payload, but otherwise it 
was safely recovered and returned to service.

Technicians use three flight control boxes to deal with Fat Albert's 
wandering ways. They keep one on each pad, and a spare at their ground 
station. It's a true "flyaway kit."
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D