Inside the dome: Barter Island radar site opens doors to the curious

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. John T. Callahan
  • Alaskan Command Public Affairs
A giant white sphere dominates the skyline of this tiny village, a remote outpost on the frozen shores of the Beaufort Sea. But until this week, very few local residents had ever seen the inside of the station, or even had a good grasp on what exactly the station was for.

The dome conceals a powerful radar, part of a chain of such stations standing like huge sentries along the northern coast of Alaska and Canada. Monitored around the clock by members of the 611th Air Support Group based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, this North Warning System - the successor to the old Distant Early Warning line - maintains perpetual watch on the skies over North America.

Built in 1953, the Kaktovik Station had until the 1980s been a much larger facility -- home to up to 150 military personnel at any given time. The station now has a much smaller footprint. The barracks and nearly all the outlying buildings have been demolished, and the station's resident staff is down to two civilian contractors.

This reduced presence inevitably led to a reduced level of community awareness regarding the facility. What is that giant white ball? Who works in the station? What do they do in there, anyway?

Last fall, representatives of the 611th ASG met with representatives from the local community to brainstorm ways to bridge the gap. Attendees suggested an open house as a way to raise awareness. So April 27 -- a beautiful, sunny day in Kaktovik -- a delegation from Elmendorf AFB arrived to welcome curious residents and explain the vital role this station - and others like it - play in America's defense.

"The idea was that local residents would have a closer, more comfortable relationship with the station here if we sort of took some of the mystique away," said Tommie Baker, environmental community relations coordinator for the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron. "It's been more than 25 years since we'd done an open house here - so far as anyone can remember - so bringing them into the station and showing them around seemed like the most effective way to do that."

The Air Force Band of the Pacific's Alaska Brass section set up shop in the station's vehicle maintenance bay while delegation leaders dropped in to the local K-12 school to personally invite all the children to the open house. For the rest of the day, a steady stream of curious villagers of all ages trickled through the station, investigating the working quarters and touring the interior of the massive dome.

"We're thrilled with all this," said Shele Kinkead, a former Washington State resident who has served as principal of the Harold Kaveolook K-12 School since arriving in Kaktovik last year. "I think it's important for the people here to build a good relationship with the Air Force and the people who work at the radar site. And the real key to that, I believe, is to reach the children. Bringing them in here and building those positive feelings is the perfect way to start strengthening that relationship."

"I also appreciate any opportunity to show our kids professionals at work, and maybe give some of them some ideas as to career choices they may have somewhere down the line," she added.

Mr. Baker characterized the open house as an experiment - one so successful, he would investigate applying it to other radar sites as well.

"It took a lot to organize, but we got an enormous return on our investment in this," he said.