"Comm folks" take down antenna towers

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. -- Just as one upgrades to a new cell phone, the military often has to upgrade its communications systems. Only in this case, "upgrading" antenna towers as high as 120 feet is a considerably greater chore.

For this purpose, the California Air National Guard journeyed to Lajes Air Base in the Azores, Portugal, tasked to remove three antenna towers and ensure they were properly decommissioned. 

Senior Master Sgt. David Solis, who led the mission, said it brought together airmen from every corner of California, including his own 129th Communications Flight as well as the 144th Communications Flight, the 146th Communications Flight, the 147th Combat Communications Squadron, the 149th Combat Communications Squadron, and the 222nd Communications Maintenance Squadron.

"The common misconception is that we sit behind a desk. But 'comm' people are extremely innovative and by virtue are some of the sharpest tools when it comes to the arsenal of tools the Air Force has," Solis said. "Their collective experience on both the military and civilian side is what made this mission successful, and bar none I would go to war with any one of these individuals."

The process of removing a tower step-by-step required a team effort of blow-torching metal foundations, unbolting plates, and cutting wires one at a time to ensure the tower falls in a straight line - and in the right direction.

147th Communications Flight Master Sgt. and first sergeant Jerome Thomas said that logistics and flexibility were key to the mission, such as when a crane didn't fit size restrictions, leaving the airmen with no choice but to free-fall a tower to the ground instead.

"This is the first time I've worked in unison with other wings, and it's a great experience mixing together and learning who each other is," Thomas said. "Each person is integral in what they do and brings something to the table. Everyone is counted on in comm."

Once antenna towers are decommissioned, they are typically made available for purchase from the general public for scrap metal or commercial purposes via the Defense Reutilization Marketing Office (DRMO).

On the training side, Guardsmen instructed Lajes Air Base's 65th Communication Squadron on proper technique for safely climbing up and rappelling down from antenna towers, as well as how to inspect equipment and rescue someone who's hurt.

Overall, five airmen became certified in tower climbing while 17 received instruction that will help them prepare both for a potential deployment or a compliance inspection.

"We remained professional and focused on the mission at hand," said 129th communication technician Tech Sgt. Garrison O. Simpson, who led the instruction. "When you teach, you learn more, so through my teaching I strengthened my own background in tower equipment. I was proud to serve."  

Also accompanying the mission to provide support and train with their active-duty counterparts was the 129th Security Forces and the 129th Logistics Readiness Squadron. 

"We were able to conduct an assessment to help them prepare for an upcoming inspection, and we were able to trade learning tools that we can bring back home," said Master Sgt. Michael Conner, a unit training manager with 129th Security Forces. "Overall they seemed pretty motivated."

For Airman 1st Class Alexis Schneider, who recently joined the 129th Logistics Readiness Squadron, the mission provided a chance to see how her unit operates in the field. 

"I learned new info that I can bring back to the base and got some really good insights," Schneider said. "I bonded with the airmen from my base and had never worked with other sections before, so I got to see what they do and work as a team."

Given that Lajes Air Base is preparing to undergo a draw-down from roughly 300 full-time personnel to about a third that size, Solis said there could be a chance to further assist their active-duty down the line.

"They're about to experience what the Guard experiences every day, so we have a unique opportunity here to advise the active duty on the challenges that we face as Guardsmen," Solis said. "I'm happy to report that I'm thoroughly impressed with the capabilities of the people that I'm working with here, and this mission has reset my expectations of the Guard."