TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — Whenever the Pentagon wants to call one of its nuclear subs in the Pacific, the call goes through the quiet Navy professionals whose E-6B Mercury communication aircraft fly out of their unobtrusive alert facility on Travis’ south side.
Like fishermen, the aircrew of Travis’ VQ-3 detachment spends long hours out over the Pacific, catching messages with a five-mile trailing antenna that will then be sent to the subs cruising safely and silently under water within 1,000 miles of the aircraft.
“We are one big relay platform,” said VQ-3 Detachment Officer in Charge Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jason Anstead.
The unit’s unofficial name, TACAMO, stands for Take Charge and Move Out. It was born in July 1963 when the director of naval communications for the chief of naval operations used those words to start work on coming up with a better way to communicate with the Navy’s nuclear submarines.
This system had to be capable of surviving any hostile military action, something ground-based communications sites were incapable of doing, according to Anstead.
The result was the creation of Strategic Communications Wing 1, which is headquartered at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., and oversees three fleet air reconnaissance squadrons. One of those, VQ-3, has the detachment, which is stationed on the south side of Travis Air Force Base’s runway. It’s sister unit, VQ-4, has a detachment that is stationed on the East Coast at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
Initially, the wing was equipped with modified C-130 Hercules aircraft. They were replaced with the E-6 Mercury, which is a heavily modified Boeing 707 packed with high-tech communications gear.
The E-6 gives the wing “extended legs” to allow the Navy fliers to stay in the air longer, up to 72 hours if needed, thanks to the E-6’s refueling capability.
During much of the Cold War, the Navy detachment was stationed in trailers at Moffett Field in Mountain View. It was moved to Travis in 1988, to a facility that early Navy VQ-3 members said they liked much better.
At Travis, the TACAMO detachment is located in what was once a Strategic Air Command Alert facility that was built in 1953 and housed the aircrews for the SAC bombers and air refuelers when they were on standby.
It is now Navy aircrew who are now on standing on alert around the clock, either on the ground or in the air.
An average mission involves taking off to a location somewhere over the Pacific Ocean for between four and 10 hours, and then flying in a tight circle just above stall speed while the five-mile-long antenna is reeled out as near to vertical as possible to become a relay point for any messages to the submarines.
Up until 1991, the unit’s primary job was to serve as an airborne communications link between the Navy leadership and its fleet of submerged nuclear submarines. Then it took over the Air Force’s Looking Glass missions, which involved relaying communications between the president and the secretary of defense to the nation’s strategic nuclear forces of submarines, bombers and missile silos.
During the war in Iraq, the E-6s and their aircrew deployed to southwest Asia to provide a better, quicker communications link between coalition convoys on the ground dealing with roadside bombs and either their higher command or medical support.
“We made more than 16,000 tactical support calls and were a vital link for the medivac helos,” said Anstead, who spent two tours over there flying those missions.
“It was one of the most rewarding tours I had,” Anstead said. “We got a lot of ‘glad you guys are up there’ calls.”
The detachment is pretty self-sustaining, with its own galley, gym, communications and mission preparation rooms, security and a maintenance facility that is capable of keeping the E-6B ready for flight whenever the call for a mission comes.
“And if we do need something, it is only a phone call away,” Anstead said of the great support they get from the rest of Travis.
With the exception of a handful of Navy personnel who are involved with the base’s construction needs, the VQ-3 detachment makes up nearly all of the 150 Navy people on Travis. And with the closure of the Bay Area’s network of Navy bases in the 1990s, “we are also the largest single naval detachment in the Bay Area,” Anstead said.
Life at the TACAMO facility can be pretty isolated, since it is located in a relatively secluded part of the base, but the liaison with the Air Force has been very good.
“Not whole lot of the Air Force people know what we are doing here, but the Air Force works with us very well,” Anstead said.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.