The Air Up There Podcast
Adventures in Safety

Season 4, Episode 9

The average person probably has no idea what the FAA’s Technical Operations, or Tech Ops, employees do or what an adventure the profession can be. And by adventure, we mean wild beasts, volcanoes, and camping in the middle of nowhere!

In the latest ‘The Air Up There’ podcast episode, “Adventures in Safety,” we talk about the extreme nature of Tech Ops and the great lengths our technicians go to maintain the airspace infrastructure so  pilots can fly safely and air traffic controllers can communicate with pilots. Warning – the content in this episode may cause wide eyes, a fast heartbeat, and shock.

Listen in to hear stories from experienced technicians Jeremy Withrow and Charles Barclay, who have maintained flight navigation equipment in the unique – and extreme – environments of arctic Alaska, Hawaii and California desert. If you’re down for an adventure, you may develop a newfound interest in an exciting Tech Ops career. Nevertheless, you will walk away from this episode with a much higher appreciation for these unsung heroes!

If you’re #TeamAdventure and #TeamSafety, visit to learn about the career and check out our job openings to see where you could be an asset to our national airspace system. And if you liked this episode, please share.

Adventures in Safety image
Adventures in Safety
Audio file

Jeremy Withrow  00:02
Most of Alaska is off the road system. Most of our sights were above the Arctic Circle hundreds and hundreds of miles between populated centers. And the coast was just covered with grizzly bears.

Charles Barclay  00:15
In Hilo, we get an average of 120 inches of rain a year,

Jeremy Withrow  00:20
We'd have lava just pop up in certain lava zones. The FAA had equipment in those lava zones. It's not LA, not San Diego, we're hot. I mean hot. I mean 120 plus, electronics that we maintain are they weren't meant to operate in 120 degrees are anywhere near that temperature.

Ryan Willis  00:42
Welcome to the Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aerospace. I'm Ryan Willis. In the FAA, technical operations is the group that keeps the air traffic control facilities and equipment up and running, often time doing their jobs silently at weird hours to keep the impact air traffic and flying public to a minimum. And sometimes they're faced with daunting challenges. Imagine a weather radar that's blown into the sea during a hurricane or technicians dropping into a jungle from a helicopter because the road is washed away. How about runway landing lights that are buried under feet of snow or the landscape around the facility? Literally being on fire? You get the picture. It can be pretty adventurous. They don't just stick the one job either. Some of our techs jump from facility to facility. Jeremy Withrow has run the environmental gamut from Arctic Alaska to rainforest and why enter the burning desert of California. Charles Barkley is in Hawaii, and has some great stories.

Jeremy Withrow  01:54
When I got to the Air Force, I was still kind of looking for adventure. I think the FAA offered me that job. Out there in the bush, we were a long way from help. Any kind of serious emergency was five to 700 miles to the hospital in Anchorage. It's unimaginable cold where I was in the Arctic, there's nine months of winter, it 50 below zero is normal. It's hard to breathe. Everything is a challenge. But yeah, we had to have very thick parkas, boots that were rated down to 50 below. We would fly everywhere we went. That's not easy climbing in and out of little planes, like the little kid from the Christmas story where he's in his red snow suit and he can't put his arms down. I mean, it's almost at the point is like that you got so many layers on it's hard to do anything. Can't have any skin exposed. Pretty much just your eyes. I mean, that's it even that's difficult at extreme temperatures, because your tears on your eyes will literally freeze. It was an adventure. It was dangerous. Sometimes it wasn't a nine to five job. On one occasion, I climbed up the back of a satellite dish, because there were you know, a grizzly bear was there. I got chased up the back of that until he went away and I could get down. On one occasion, we had radios at a mountaintop. And that was the coldest I've ever been at sea level. It wasn't too bad. But the winds, but I say too bad. But really that's like 30 below, right is not too bad. But with the windchill up at the communication site was negative 80. Yeah, you can't really comprehend how cold that is, and what that feels like. It was exciting, there was always something new.

Ryan Willis  03:36 
So I do want to circle back, if you could give me a little bit more about this grizzly bear.

Jeremy Withrow  03:41
It was a sight, the remote site along the coast, along the Arctic Ocean, and it was early fall, which is early September for that location now part north and the coast was just covered with grizzly bears. They were all feasting on berries and whatever they could find before winter set in. When I landed, I got out and our point of contact there and pilot like that to be careful. The bears are all over the place. So we had a building there, which housed all of our equipment and then a satellite dish. I was working on the backside of the satellite dish. And the grizzly bear had moved around the other side of the building where I couldn't see him. When I walked around that side of the building. He was standing right there. He stood up on his hind legs. It's not like the National Park where you are used to seeing humans. So I startled him as much as he startled me to put down my things and slowly back away and then as soon as I got out of his eyesight boy, I never ran that fast to up the back of the satellite dish. And he came over and you know, sniffed around and looked around and then walked off but my heart was racing. Oh my goodness. When you live in Alaska, you know how to deal with the bears. Even in the municipalities like Anchorage and in cities. The bears are just there.

Ryan Willis  04:56
Not so much angry wildlife to worry about in our next facility. But it's not always the tropical paradise you think when you hear Hawaii,

Jeremy Withrow  05:05
I was assigned on the Big Island of Hawaii. So I didn't travel among the different islands, more that we maintained everything, all the electronics and communications and navigations on just the Big Island. I visited before and found that I needed the cold weather gear that I had bought for Alaska. A lot of our sites were at the mountaintops, anytime the trade winds were blowing. We had radar sites and communication sites where it would blow 40 miles an hour steady and blow that way nonstop. These mountaintop sites, it would rain 15 hours a day, do that 300 days a year. So we're always dealing with the wind and the rain, cold and wet. That's that was just the conditions that worked in

Charles Barclay  05:50
In Hilo, we get an average of 120 inches of rain a year. We have a lot of corrosion, we might have an air conditioning system that might last less than 10 years might only last seven years. The same system on the other side of the island and dry side, probably just Kona is gonna last maybe 20 years. So it's a constant battle.

Jeremy Withrow  06:13
On the Big Island. That's where the Kilauea Volcano, the most active volcano is so you know, we'd have lava, we'd have lava just pop up in certain lava zones. The FAA had equipment in those lava zones. So if lava would come up out of the earth, we'd had sites that have been cut off by road to get to because there's lava and take out the road.

Charles Barclay  06:35
We had a major a major eruption from the Kilauea volcano. And, sometimes what happens is it'll erupt at the summit, but also vents out the side of the volcano. The lava went all the way down miles down to the ocean, in the Puna area. And I think they might have lost I think upwards of 600 homes in that eruption. So we have a radar system out there doing a 50 mile radar. Our island is the closest to the west coast. So the planes that are picked up on radar coming from the west coast are picked up by that radar. The lava was threatening to cut that radar off by flowing over the highway. That lava stopped only a couple blocks from the highway, which was actually amazing.

Ryan Willis  07:18
There's minus 50 degree temps, soaking wet hypothermia, lava. What else could the earth possibly throw out at people in technical operations?

Jeremy Withrow  07:29
We're in the desert. So it's not LA. It's not San Diego, we're hot. I mean hot I mean 120 plus. So yeah, hot dry. Electronics that we maintain, they weren't meant to operate in 120 degrees or anywhere near that temperature. So, especially in the summer, we are very mindful of the air conditioning. And making sure the buildings are cool, because without that we electronics would just, just going to burn up. And we don't go anywhere without water. We make sure our vehicles are well maintained. Because you go out to some of our mountain top remote sites and your vehicle breaks down and there's no cell phone coverage. It's 120 degrees, it might be five miles to the interstate, that's a long five miles at 120 degrees in the blaring sun. We've done this, really at all the locations I've been but wherever we go, somebody knows where you're going and when do we back. So if you don't show up at the end of the day, somebody's looking for you.

Charles Barclay  08:35
So as a tech ops employee, you may be called out to respond. So if there's any type of danger, any type of weather, or security, there's going to be a discussion before you go out.

Jeremy Withrow  08:50
Yeah, I think we avoid those kind of emergencies by risk assessment and planning. If there's monsoon storms, we won't travel that day. It's not worth somebody's life to not come back to fix a radio or something. We work really hard to avoid taking unnecessary risks.

Ryan Willis  09:10
Adventures man, tech ops is adventurous. We'd like to share more stories like Jeremy and Charles's if you'd like to hear them. Let us know. The beaches of California islands like Puerto Rico and Guam. High in the Rockies. Everywhere planes, drones or rockets fly. There are technicians with great stories to tell. And that's our episode. If you liked today's episode, share it with somebody. The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. You can find the FAA on social media at FAA on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and at FAA news on Twitter and YouTube. Thanks for listening.