VORTAC ensures safe landings for Misawa Air Base, local community

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kelly White
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
At twice the age of some of the Airmen who work with it, and in-service longer than the majority of today's U.S. service members, this weapons system has enhanced the success of flying operations on Misawa Air Base, as well as its neighboring community airport, since 1988.

"This dual-purpose navigational aid, a Very High-Frequency Omni-Directional Radio Range and a Tactical Air Navigation system form VORTAC, is a homing beacon that tells aircraft from anywhere in the world - military and civilian - they're in the vicinity of the installation and Misawa City Airport," said Tech. Sgt. Linwood Robinson, 35th Communications Squadron Airfield Systems Maintenance NCO in charge.

The VORTAC, jointly owned, operated and maintained by Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Air Force, emits a frequency that a receiver on an aircraft reads, the sergeant explained. It is self-operating, able to support up to 100 air craft at a time and can be received from up to 100 miles away.

"We maintain most of the VORTAC navigational equipment," Sergeant Robinson said. "JASDF maintains the radar side of the navigational equipment. Some of the base electrical infrastructure is also maintained by JASDF, so it's really a joint effort to maintain the airfield and keep it up and running."

The VOR portion or the VORTAC serves commercial airplanes, and the TACAN serves strictly military aircraft. Because few Air Force installations accommodate daily flight operations for civilian aircraft landing, Misawa is one of the only bases to support VOR equipment.

"The VORTAC, combined with an aircraft's instrument landing system, creates precision landing - something that cannot be accomplished visually during inclimate weather and decreased visibility," he explained. "Low cloud cover, fog, rain, snow and so forth, are pretty normal conditions here at Misawa, making it necessary for aircraft to commonly rely on 'instrument flight rules only' to land."

Properly and safely managing air traffic during adverse weather conditions is a primary function of the VORTAC, and neither weather nor environmental conditions can affect the signal the VORTAC emits - with one known exception.

"This past winter, the VORTAC went down," said Sergeant Robinson. "We immediately responded and found that wet, heavy snow had accumulated on the antennas. Four to five inches of accumulation were carefully brushed off and within 45 minutes of it doing down, it was up and running again. Other than that, the VORTAC - with its multiple monitors and transmitters - never stops doing its job."

This highly-unusual outage came at an extremely inopportune time, Sergeant Robinson added.

"There was a civilian aircraft inbound, and other airports in the vicinity had already shut down," he said. "If we hadn't gotten the system back on the air, they'd have had to turn around and head back to Tokyo. Then, there would have been fuel issues and so forth. It circled while we cleared it off and were able to make sure they landed safely."

Ensuring the VORTAC continually enables aircraft to accurately and safely land was recently enhanced when the Federal Aviation Administration and a Japanese contractor repaired the roof of the facility housing it.

"The roof had started leaking water last year," said Capt. Bryant Esendencia, 35 CS operations flight commander, "and although it might sound like a simple thing, it was causing tons of water to leak through where the backup generators are located and almost to the main equipment for the VORTAC. We weren't sure the roof would have lasted another winter, either."

In addition to providing better housing for VORTAC equipment, a trait of the facility's roof actually affects the equipment's output.

The 20-plus-year-old metal roof had become rusted and corroded, said Sergeant Robinson. "They brushed off the rust and corrosion, and sealed it, so the roof now better protects the equipment inside and also provides more reliable reflective surface for the signal the VORTAC sends."