About 30 people, most of them Coastside residents, met on May 9 in the brilliant sunshine that bathed a dirt lot near Mavericks Beach in Princeton. The occasion was a rare tour of the installation that loomed above – the Pillar Point Air Force Station.
The station and its ubiquitous “golf ball” are shrouded in mystery as well as the usual coastal fog. While nearly everyone knows it is an Air Force facility, few have ever been behind the gates, and fewer still really know what takes place in the bunkerlike buildings on the spectacular blufftops.
The tour was arranged by the Half Moon Bay Pilots Association and the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which together worked behind the scenes for weeks to arrange it with officials at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc. Brent Gammon, president of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 639, said he hoped to point out the importance of the Half Moon Bay Airport to community leaders, encourage better communication between the local aviation community and the Air Force, and to answer some of the common questions revolving around the sometimes mysterious base on the bluffs. For instance:
• What is that “golf ball?” It’s a hard plastic shell that merely protects sophisticated and expensive measuring equipment underneath.
• What is the mission? To track missiles fired from Vandenberg, 280 miles to the south, as well as other U.S. assets in the air and in space.
• Is it under heavy guard? No. In fact, there is rarely any military presence at all.
“I think we made progress on all fronts,” Gammon said via email after the tour.
Vandenberg manages the facility, but day-to-day operations are performed by fewer than two dozen employees of InDyne Inc., a Virginia-based military contractor that handles security, communications and a variety of highly technical functions for government installations from NASA headquarters to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Air Force officials say Pillar Point is critical for tracking an average of nine launches out of the Southern California base each year. Those include about three test flights of the intercontinental ballistic missile known as the Minuteman III. The next big event is a scheduled Aug. 3 launch of an Atlas V rocket that is part of a secret national security mission.
While it may seem impenetrable and impersonal, last week’s visitors were greeted by some familiar faces. Helmut Erhard lives on the coast and has worked at Pillar Point for a decade.
He met his guests at the gate and led them up the sloping drive that surrounded concrete buildings and an array of antennae and radar equipment. He pointed to buildings laden with electronics designed to make delicate measurements of objects in orbit or missiles launched from Vandenberg. He gestured toward radar dishes that can find one-meter spheres in space. He mentioned the Command Transmitter equipment capable of triggering the destruction of a missile in flight.
“When we do a launch,” he deadpanned, “it’s a very complicated thing.”
Coastsider Tim Iverson has worked in the telemetry department at the station for about 35 years. He showed off equipment both sophisticated and at the end of its lifespan. A bank of all but obsolete magnetic tape recorders shares space with state-of-the-art, touch-screen computers.
InDyne employees and Air Force officials are adamant that the station is not used to track missiles fired from other countries. They also did their best to dispel rumors that radiation originating at the station’s radar dishes was a danger to pilots like those on the tour.
The event lasted more than three hours and concluded with a presentation by Lt. Col. Heather Yates at the nearby airplane hangar used by Coastside pilot Eddie Andreini. Yates is the range management squadron commander and, in military speak, “owns” Pillar Point.
“We’re really lucky to have such a supportive community here,” she told the small crowd, which included many pilots who operate out of Half Moon Bay Airport and local dignitaries like state Sen. Leland Yee and Half Moon Bay Mayor Allan Alifano.
Alifano, tongue-in-cheek, asked Yates if she would be willing to paint the spherical orb Coastsiders and even tracking station workers know as the “golf ball” a bright orange for the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival.
“I would love to be able to support that,” she said with a laugh that indicated the ball wouldn’t be painted any time soon.