Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cold War Radar Still Overlooks Washington, Iowa Skies


A Sunday drive to the southern part of eastern Iowa confirms no more snow, abundant drying farmland and the annual migration of field equipment from storage to staging areas near agriculture production centers. Southwest of Washington, Iowa rising prominently above flat fields, the eagle-eye 42N team came upon this interesting structure (above.)

The tower and building look to be of military origin or avionic related. FAA mid-continental navigation aids are or formerly were located just of few miles north of this location near Hills, Iowa. On sunny days east and west bound commercial flights can be seen nearly overhead. Was this structure something related to that? If military in origin, what was the function of this fenced facility?

Turns out this now defunct tower's function was far more important than what appears to be a radio antenna. During the Cold War, the responsibility for the defense of the US skies was with the US Air Force. About sixty years ago the USAF began building a series of installations to form a permanent radar network. The main function of the Washington, Iowa site was to fill the northern gap of radar coverage emanating from the Kirksville, Missouri Air Force Station.

Radar stations like the Washington, Iowa facility, like this USAF image (left) served as part of the Cold War defense program. Washington's mission as a warning station was to provide ground control intercept data to Kirksville. Washington, Iowa radar provided aircraft direction, speed, altitude information and whether the craft was deemed friendly or hostile.


Once the information was analyzed and a decision made, military aircraft scrambled to investigate unidentified or hostile craft. In the early part of the 1950s I imagine the go-to USAF interceptor was the F-86 Sabre, like this one from Ellsworth AFB in Rapids City, South Dakota. Sabres based around the Iowa-Missouri-Illinois region had the capability to zoom at a 687 mph maximum speed up to a 50,000 ft ceiling to find and engage hostile craft that dared enter Washington, Iowa airspace.

Today this rural situated tower may be a private radio operation. But more importantly, no passing Soviet MiGs were spotted over the Washington skies today either. Know that.