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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

It's a final 'aloha, Hickam out'

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

The voices of Hickam Air Force Base's high-frequency radio operators fell silent this weekend.

Senior Airman Janie Slysz is one of 17 operators who will change jobs after Hickam's listening station closes.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

After nearly 60 years of linking troubled air or sea crews to those who would guide them to safety, of re-transmitting "come back" messages to Cold Warriors on deadly missions, and of helping local emergency crews coordinate rescues in remote areas, the Hickam high-frequency radio operators stopped responding, their voices falling mute to military downsizing.

"Hickam, come in," a pilot requested on Friday.

His message may have originated from as far away as the other side of the globe. It might have ridden radio waves that followed the earth's terrain, folding around horizons before striking Hawai'i's receiver, or bounced from near ground level, off the ionosphere and back to the ground.

Senior Airman Janie Slysz sat silent in the windowless back room of the high-frequency global radio station. She fidgeted. She turned a knob on the operator console, a hunk of World War II-era equipment married piecemeal to state-of-the-art technology, and through the static isolated the faint noise that revealed itself as the pilots' voice.

She leaned forward and flexed muscles at the corners of her mouth. Maybe the operators at the Air Force's new, consolidated listening station in Maryland would fail to pick up the call. Maybe she should take it.

Her supervisor, Tech Sgt. Eldon Person, sat nearby. He nodded nervously toward the equipment, encouraging her to answer with one gesture, warning her away with another.

A second message came through. Louder, clearer, the person who delivered it speaking in code — an "emergency action message" that may have been part of a military exercise, or may have referred to an actual military event, secret to those who didn't understand the code.

Maryland operators responded to both, taking the calls in the order dictated by government priorities, without Slysz's help.

The airman and her sergeant exchanged disappointed looks.

"It's sad," said Lt. Col. David Gruber, commander of the 15th Communications Squadron. "It's a part of our heritage that is going away."

Hickam's 17 radio operators will move on to other jobs this summer, he said.

Helical UHF antennae serve as a backdrop for Capt. Rigel Hinkley on the roof of the 15th Communications Squadron's high-frequency station.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The global station operators have operated out of the same building — one pockmarked by Japanese bullets — since shortly after Pearl Harbor. Some of the equipment may have been used to transmit ship-to-shore reports of submarines outside the harbor during the attack, but records of that time are sparse, and no one is sure.

Early high-frequency radio operators transmitted in Morse code, Gruber said. Teletypes were used for a while.

Most messages now, thanks to improvement in technology, are transmitted by voice. Satellite communications have become the preferred mode of transmitting information in recent decades, but high-frequency radio remains a valued backup.

Record-keeping improved after the operators moved to the building at Hickam, Gruber said, and the history of the high-frequency equipment is documented. Through Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and all the daily missions in between, Air Force operators listened 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the noise, barely perceptible through constant static, of a pilot or captain trying to make radio contact.

During the heart of the Cold War, they forwarded messages from the joint chiefs of staff or the president or the secretary of defense to bombers and submarines loaded with nuclear weapons. Those messages were coded, but Gruber said that review shows the content of at least one message per mission was the same:

Come back.

Person, who joined the Air Force and became a high-frequency operator in the late 1980s, said that because international law required it, operators passed on messages from pilots and ship's captains of every nationality, regardless of the state of that nation's relations with the United States. Often during his early days, Person said, the pilots and captains were Russian.

All the operators have favorite calls, Person said. He values the time he helped an air crew track and extinguish the source of smoke in the cockpit.

Slysz helped connect the pilot who made an emergency landing on Hainan island in China to the secretary of state.

Gruber enjoys telling how the operators helped firefighers coordinate rescue efforts after the rockslide at Sacred Falls. Traditional communications were unable to move beyond the walls of the canyon, he said. High-frequency radio dipped easily inside.

A ceremony will be held tomorrow to commemorate Hickam high-frequency radio operations. Then the operators' consoles will be shut down and the lights will be turned off. The Maryland operators will take over.

"No more 'Aloha, Hickam out'," said Slysz, referring to the Hickam signoff.

Saying "aloha" over the radio didn't exactly conform to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for on-air communications. But then again, neither did the inevitable query posed by almost every pilot who made contact with Hickam:

"How's the weather down there, Hawai'i?"