The Great Radician Walkout of 1975

by Clive Beckmann

The following story came about as a result of someone asking me about the advent of Console Operators on the DEWLine.

In The Beginning
In July, 1957, ITT was awarded the Dewline Operations & Maintenance (O&M) contract. The Communications and Electronics (C&E) workforce consisted of Radicians, one of whom was appointed to be the Lead Radician. The work week was set at 54 hours, i.e., six 9-hour work days. The term ‘Radician’ was a contraction of the words ‘RADar-operator-technICIAN’, so assigned because they did both the equipment maintenance duties and operations duties, i.e., sitting console and watching the radar displays.

This arrangement basically prevailed until the contract change of 1975. At that time, as a cost cutting effort, the new job classification of Console Operator (COP) was created. Their job duties included sitting console, maintaining libraries, taking weather observations, etc., but no equipment maintenance duties. This concept was simple: The Radician (RAD) would be freed up to concentrate on equipment maintenance for most of his/her work day, but the trade-off was that the C&E workforce at each site would be capped at only two RADs and three COPs. There were certain exceptions to this manning level: Main stations (with a larger equipment compliment) could be authorized additional RADs; and any site could have temporary overages of both RADs and COPs due to support aircraft and personnel vacation scheduling.

Radar console showing both the upper (left) and lower (right) beam displays. Radician Doug Wright on console duty. Photo courtesy of Brian Jeffrey, 1962.

Here, to the best of my recollection, is what happened before, during and after the 1975 contract change. The items presented are as I remember them but may contain inaccuracies—bear in mind that these events occurred more than one-third century ago. Information presented describes events in the Alaska Sector—I’m not sure about the Canadian/Greenland sectors.

Contract Background
In 1967, ITT recaptured the DEWLine contract, I believe for a 3-yr period with the USAF having two 1-yr options. The USAF exercised both options for a total contract length of 5 yrs.

In 1972, RCA OMS captured the DEWLine contract, probably for the same 3-yr period with two 1-yr options. Although I left the Line in 1973, on rehire in 1976, I learned that the USAF did not opt to exercise the 1-yr options and reopened the contract for bid. ITT submitted the successful bid and recaptured the contract in 1975.

I learned from my good friend, Ed Hammer (who was to be the Sector Supervisor, Communications and Electronics (SSC&E) on the new contract) that there were two big changes in the structure of the new contract:

In order to reduce the bottom line of their bid, ITT bid with the idea of having just two Radicians per site, then creating three Console Operator positions to enable a 24/7 rotating shift schedule.

Hence, the Console Operator job classification (COP) came into being in 1975.

The union (IBEW in Alaska Sector, I don’t know about Canada/Greenland sectors) insisted that the new contract have no limitations on the sex of Radicians and Console Operators, so for the first time in the history of the Line, women were hired.

Contract Transition Problems
Creation of the COP position created a firestorm of protest in Alaska (not sure what was happening in Canada/Greenland). When the Radicians heard of the new concept, almost all of them started planning to use their seniority to bid for the upcoming COP slots. Their reasoning: No work or responsibilities outside of sitting console while drawing the same pay. Alas, it was all a pipe dream, i.e., there were no free lunches.

They were rudely awakened when ITT informed them that the COP pay rate was significantly lower than RAD pay. Also, the work week (which had forever been pegged at 54 hrs/week, i.e., six 9 hr days) would be eventually lowered to 48 hrs/week, i.e., six 8 hr days for shift workers; or a straight five 8 hr days per week for non-shift workers.

At any rate, the RADs began bitching and complaining among themselves at the six Alaska sites, the upshot of which was that they all agreed to resign in protest if ITT wouldn’t meet their demands to keep the hours and pay rates the same as before. They figured they had ITT by the short hairs since a wholesale walkout meant that all the equipment would soon become inoperative. The radar and tropo mission equipment groups were the original models installed in the mid-1950’s, and were maintenance intensive. But ITT couldn’t capitulate because they’d already been awarded the contract based on the new figures. This all culminated in ‘The Great Radician Walkout of 1975‘. On ‘D-Day’ (D for ‘departure’) the lateral aircraft departed Fairbanks enroute to all sites. The RADs kept hoping that there would be an eleventh hour capitulation by ITT and they’d stay on the job. But they waited in vain, and with just two exceptions, all the RADs boarded and went to town, terminated.

The RADs had entered a high stakes stare-down and ITT didn’t blink. Those RADs became history.

ITT had already hired some COPs but not enough to man all six sites 24/7 on the projected schedule. A raiding program was mounted during which they scoured the current Project Head Quarters (PHQ) roster, Canada/Greenland rosters, and lists of former employees in order to fill RAD/COP slots and keep the Line running. They managed to find enough fill-in personnel (most of whom were former RADs) to have at least one RAD for each site. It was touch and go for awhile. Many equipment groups at the sites were either operating in degraded status or were, in fact, inoperative. Red ESR’s (Electronic Status Reports), heretofore a rarity, became commonplace.

Meanwhile, ITT continued to hire COPs and RADs and eventually acquired enough for a return to a semblance of ‘normalcy’ at all sites. However, some of the new COPs were electronics techs, and those who agreed were sent to Streator to attend upgrade training to Radicians. Of course, this created holes in the manning of the sites, so for the remainder of 1975 and the first 8 months of 1976, there were COP shortages as well as Radician shortages.

The new RADs that were acquired in fall/winter of 1975 were starting from ground zero, technically speaking, and the learning curve was very gradual because there were no ‘old hands’ to put into the vacant Sector Radician slots in order to provide training and get them up to speed. The two RADs who had stayed on board weren’t able to provide much effective training because of the shortages in COP and RAD slots.

So in addition to the equipment becoming degraded, the USAF-mandated training requirements began to degrade as well. As I recall, USAF required two RADs at each site to have 4-levels in each equipment group. After the walkout, just the two RADs who had stayed on board had any levels at all. Any new RADs hired after 01 Oct had zero equipment levels.

And so the program staggered along into the summer of 1976 when the first Contractor Performance Evaluation Team (CPET) inspection of the new contract occurred in Alaska. As would be expected, they ripped the C&E sections at the sites a new bung-hole. USAF threatened a ‘cure letter’ to the Alaska Sector C&E department.

Had such a letter been issued, the discrepancies identified by the letter would have had to be ‘cured’ by the next CPET inspection or USAF would be free to open the contract for re-bid. My friend, Ed Hammer, had contacted me in the spring of 1976 and inquired as to my interests in returning to the Line. Although I didn’t know it at the time, he was looking at me as his possible savior. He was the SSC&E and was the individual tasked with clearing up the ever-growing mountain of discrepancies that were piling up. I had six years of radician experience under my belt, about half of which was in either sector or lead radician slots. I had either 4-levels or 5-levels in all equipment groups except the new Rivet Switch air-ground radios and the new emergency/disaster radios. If Ed could coerce me into returning to a Sector Rad slot, he could see a possibility of keeping his head above water and reducing the discrepancies noted in the previous CPET inspection.

But I had a good job with Boeing as a technical instructor on the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWACS) program and was not yet of a mind to head north for a third DEWLine tour. Lucky for Ed (and me as well !), during the summer of 1976, there were changes occurring in the AWACS training department that were dulling my enthusiasm to stay aboard the AWACS program. By late August, I called Ed on the Line and said I was ready to make the transition. He was overjoyed and put the wheels into motion that would grease the skids for my rapid Streator re-qualification and arrival in the Alaska Sector.

Upon my arrival, Ed assigned me to the Sector Radician slot with marching orders to expeditiously clear as many CPET discrepancies as possible before the next inspection rolled around. I soon discovered that my job was threefold: 1) Make sure that equipment at all sites was functioning at or above T.O. specs; 2) make sure all sites and all RADs were qualified to USAF standards; 3) make sure COPs and RADs at all sites were qualified in correct console procedures, especially in the use of the classified publications and crypto devices located at the console.

During the next 6-8 months, working closely with Ed, the list of C&E discrepancies (that numbered over seventy following the previous CPET inspection) was reduced to just two or three per site. So Ed, and his boss, the Sector Superintendent, and the C&E department at Project Head Quarters, had a pretty good feeling about the prospects of a good evaluation from the CPET in the next inspection scheduled for sometime in 1977.

As it turned out, after the initial growing pains of 1975-1977, from an operational perspective, the COP program kind of settled into a good routine. Many of those hired for COP slots had excellent backgrounds in an operations environment, and after initial assignment, became top-notch COPs.

However, from a financial perspective, the overall concept didn’t really work the way ITT and the USAF had envisioned it. The idea of having COPs with lower pay rates and Radicians with higher pay rates as a money saver was negated to a large extent by what the USAF called ‘wage compression’.

In the 1975-1976 timeframe, the rad pay was around $9/hr, and COP pay was pegged lower than that, around $6/hr as I recollect. This resulted in a savings of about one-third from a wage perspective. However, with the north-slope oil boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the oil-field wage rates (due to the Davis-Bacon act) greatly affected DEWLine wage rates. The DEWLine was a military program, and according to Davis-Bacon, required that its wage rates be set to match the prevailing civilian rates in the area. Prior to the oil boom, there were no other businesses on the north slopes save those small local businesses in the native communities, so DEWLine wages were unaffected by those entities. However, after the advent of big oil companies on the North Slopes, their wage rates were higher, and increased at a much faster rate than traditionally seen on the DEWLine contract. Over the next decade, the $9/$6 ratio changed to something in the ratio of $28/$24. This was ‘wage compression’, i.e., the separation of wages didn’t change at the same rate as the individual wage rates. The USAF ended up paying roughly the same for a COP as it did for a RAD. But that was all in hindsight and would be short lived. (Note: In the Canadian sectors, the Canadian government would set the wage rates, terms and conditions for employees, even after they became unionized. In Greenland, employees were not covered or supported by any policies or agreements, and terms of work were directly set by PHQ.)

For several years, the USAF had been planning to supplant the old ‘manual’ DEWLine system with an automatic North Warning System (NWS). The venerable FPS-19 radars produced data that was not compatible with a digitizing process that would allow it to be transmitted via satellite uplink. During the 1986-1988 timeframe, the sites were upgraded with the FPS-117 radar, the data output of which was already digitized and could easily be conditioned for satellite uplink. This allowed the deactivation of the lateral and rearward tropo links and a switch to satellite communications.

It marked the end of an era but the ghost of the DEWLine lives on as the North Warning System.

By 1990, all designated DEWLine sites had been upgraded to digital operation and satellite reporting, but not only that, the new radar equipment was of the ‘minimally attended’ or ‘unattended’ varieties. This meant that RADs and COPs were no longer required. It also meant that none of the other functional areas (civil engineering, culinary, power production, etc.) were required either. In late summer of 1990, the upcoming O&M contract called for some sites to be unmanned but monitored via satellite, and maintenance personnel dispatched when required; or minimally manned with one or two personnel to attend to certain tasks.

In September 1990, nearly all DEWLiners headed south for the last time…a new era had begun. And in 1994, in a ceremony at Bar-3, the DEWLine was officially decommissioned. (Editors note, the video of the DEWLine Closing Ceremony is available here.)

It was a good run: 1957 to 1994. Thirty-seven years of service from a program that had only been intended to serve for ten years. It’s one of the few times that a military program really gave taxpayers their money’s worth.

In the ensuing years to present, the roster of those who served on the Dewline has significantly shrunk—Dewliners are becoming an endangered species. But we don’t think of those folks on the roster as ‘ex-Dewliners’. To paraphrase what is stated in the Frances Jewel Dixon book, The Dewline Years, “Once a Dewliner, always a Dewliner”. I’m pretty sure that anyone who was a part of the program would totally agree.

Clive Beckmann, 2015