The ability to communicate is important to all of us. To our military and government personnel, communication is key to the defense of the United States (and beyond). Communications stations and transmitting facilities around the world provide the ability to send and receive messages, sometimes classified, sometimes not, sometimes mundane, sometimes not.
I recently wrote about the 100th anniversary of the Navy’s transmitter facility in Annapolis and while that site isn’t used any longer for communications, I was reminded of another local site that is still being used. Some might not even be aware of its existence.
All the information shared here is public – it was all released to the public and is all unclassified.
First, about Davidsonville – it’s a community in central Anne Arundel County, bordering Prince George’s County. There’s still a lot of farmland in Davidsonville and it has retained its semi-rural character.
Second, what’s a transmitter site? This is where messages/communications that began somewhere else are then transmitted to their intended recipients all over the world. The equipment located on active transmitting sites does require human supervision/intervention to make repairs and/or replacement as needed.
The 980- acre Davidsonville Transmitter Site is a U.S. Air Force property, located approximately 30 miles away from Joint Base Andrews(JBA). JBA is home to the 89th Airlift Wing, which provides global Special Air Mission airlift, logistics, aerial port and communications for the president, vice president, cabinet members, combatant commanders and other senior military and elected leaders as tasked by the White House, Air Force chief of staff and Air Mobility Command. The 89th Airlift Wing maintains 24/7 alert, operating the Executive Airlift Training Center and Government Network Operation Center. In other words, the Davidsonville Transmitting Site is of global importance.
Because of its mission and the equipment located there, it’s not often the Davidsonville Transmitter Site receives attention. And it’s extremely rare to see photos of the site. There have been a couple of times over the years when Air Force personnel did write stories about it – with accompanying photos. Again, this information was released to the public.
In an article called, “D-Ville Dragons roar on at Andrews off-site,” published on September 11, 2009, Capt. Christian Hodge of the 316th Wing Public Affairs wrote,
Leaders from the 316th Wing, 89th Airlift Wing, and the Air Force District of Washington recently travelled roughly 30 miles north of Andrews to visit the 89th Communications Squadron’s Davidsonville Transmitter Site and meet some of the men and women that work there – the “D-ville Dragons.”
Colonel John Long, 316th Mission Support Group commander, Col. Robert Mulheran, 89th Airlift Support Group commander, and Col. Brian Bellacicco, AFDW’s director of logistics, installations and mission support, toured the site, received a mission brief and discussed the future of the historic, yet still vital,
“The antennas and personnel who maintain them are critical to Air Mobility Command as they support nearly all global airlift operations” said Colonel Mulheran. “By maintaining the site and its equipment the men and women of the Davidsonville Transmitter site enable communications reach-back capability for all AMC gray-tail aircraft, very important person special air mission, or VIPSAM, aircraft, White House Communications Agency, Department of State and U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM.”
Other missions supported at the Davidsonville site include: the TOP 5 – President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff; command and control for mobility Air Forces; global humanitarian and North Atlantic Treaty Organization support; Air Force Space Command launch and recovery operations; dissemination of emergency action messages; 1st Helicopter Squadron and secure high frequency e-mail to the Air Force’s Airborne Warning and Control System fleet.
“The men and women of the Davidsonville Transmitter site day in and day out do a phenomenal job,” said Colonel Mulheran. “The site personnel repeatedly earn the admiration of senior Wing leadership for their professionalism that goes above and beyond their daily mission.”
This professionalism clearly shows in the day-to-day maintenance of the installation. All three colonels were impressed by the overall condition of more than 50-year-old facility.
“While old, the all who visit Davidsonville Site immediately see the pride the site’s personnel take in maintaining the facility,” said Colonel Mulheran. “It is essential that the Davidsonville site present a first class physical impression to match the top notch work done by its personnel.”
The facility was established in 1953 and sits on 980 acres of beautiful woods and grassland of the Maryland countryside. It is made up of four work centers: satellite and wideband maintenance, HF global radio maintenance, antenna maintenance and power production.
The 40 personnel assigned are charged with a 24/7 operation and security of the facility. This includes maintenance of all communications and support equipment located at the Davidsonville Transmitter site, and also the Brandywine Receiver site.
The Brandywine site is an unmanned communications facility contained on 1640 acres, housing high frequency SCOPE command receivers. It is remotely monitored by Davidsonville personnel.
“A typical day at Davidsonville involves physical fitness training, repairing communication outages, and site and grounds maintenance,” said Senior Master Sgt. Walter Cox, 89 CS flight superintendent. “Personnel take a great deal of pride in being assigned to those workcenters and being a D-ville Dragon.”
Sergeant Cox said his very first Air Force assignment was at Brandywine, some 25 years ago, when it was still manned. He also said in contrast to the sophisticated equipment and complex mission of the Davidsonville Transmitter site, how they gained their moniker the “Dragons” is rather uncomplicated.
“Many years ago someone came up with the name because they knew how to draw a dragon, and it sounded good – the D-ville Dragons,” said Sergeant Cox.
In an article called, “Airman’s initiatives increase realism, enhance SERE training, ” published on September 18, 2013, Senior Airman Lindsey A. Porter of the 11th Wing Public Affairs wrote,
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. — Darting through woods and sprinting across open fields, Aircrew from the 89th Airlift Wing found themselves making every effort to avoid being seen by patrolling enemy aircraft. Although they knew this was a simulated evasion mission, these SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) Refresher Course students understood the importance of this training.
Their instructor, Staff Sgt. Mathew Fistler, 89th Operations Support Squadron SERE specialist, has driven home the idea that what they learn in this scenario could one day save their lives. For this reason, it was Fistler who employed the Army UH-72 Lakota Helicopters from neighboring Ft. Belvoir, Va., to act as this scene’s mock enemy aircraft and enlisted them to seek out his evading students.
“All aircrew with a high risk of isolation must attend a 19-day SERE training course called S-V80-A at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State,” Fistler said. “Then, once at their permanent duty station, HRI Airmen complete a SERE Refresher Course once every three years at their unit. Certain objectives must be met to become SERE re-qualified. A base can hold refresher training in a number of ways, as long as objectives are met.”
Normally composed of various PowerPoint presentations and equipment briefs, most refresher course students on Andrews end their training without being chased by aircraft. However, realizing the importance of his mission, and the mission of those he teaches, Fistler recruited the help of augmentees as well as Army aircraft to act as opposing forces during this portion of training. The idea being, the more realistic the training, the more his students would remember it in an emergency situation.
“This was my third refresher class and it was by far the closest to my original training back at Fairchild,” said Air National Guard Bureau strategic analyst and refresher course student, Maj. Christian Cornette. “At this point looking back, we had clear instructions of what to expect during the course, but my guess is that the class under-estimated the training; I know I did. The entire event, from our van simulating getting hijacked to the helo extraction, made this training environment quite realistic.”
“The bottom line is that Staff Sgt. Fistler is constantly looking for ways to improve training and make it more interesting than just reading PowerPoint slides in a classroom,” said Maj. Andy Freeman, 89th OSS chief of wing intelligence. “Fistler’s initiative for increased realism helps drive home the teaching points that if you do these things, the ‘bad guys’ looking for you won’t find you.”
Noting his unique role as a SERE specialist on Andrews, Fistler remarked that helping protect the lives of those he trains is his main motivation for adding realism to his curriculum. If his students remember his training, he says, they in turn can save someone else’s life.
“At Andrews, we’re responsible for providing SERE training to 89th AW aircrew, as well as aircrew from units throughout the National Capital Region,” Fistler said. “Essentially, the aircrew we teach are responsible for making sure anyone can survive in case of emergency. These aircrew need to be able to keep not just themselves, but also civilians, distinguished visitors, and possibly even the President alive in any given survival situation. It’s a huge responsibility to make sure they are well-trained; it’s a job that we don’t take lightly.”
Furthermore, Fistler finds extra motivation for adding realism to his scenarios in his student’s reactions.
“My favorite part of being a SERE specialist is being able to see a noticeable change in my students,” Fistler said. “For some, SERE training is like their kryptonite. If I have a student for a few training days in a row, however, usually I’ll see a change in their attitude, receptiveness and knowledge level for personnel recovery procedures.”
By constantly coming up with new-and-improved training ideas, Fistler hopes to improve Andrews’ SERE refresher training even more in the near future. Currently, he is looking for ways to incorporate the 11th Security Forces Squadron’s K-9 units into tracking his ‘evading’ students.
Whatever the means, Fistler intends to lead memorable enough training that if the need ever arises, his students remember how to survive, evade, resist or escape any life-threatening situation.
“Fistler’s goal is to make sure every person he teaches, regardless of rank or branch of service, gets the information they need in order to handle worst-case scenarios,” Freeman said. “He puts forth the same 150 percent effort regardless of the student. His impact is felt far beyond the 89th AW and Joint Base Andrews. Like the old adage that says, ‘the more you sweat (and get chased by real people, dogs, and helicopters) in training, the less you bleed (or get captured) in war.'”
Next time you’re driving through Davidsonville, don’t judge a book by its cover. It is peaceful and semi-rural, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Were you stationed at the Davidsonville Transmitter Site and do you have unclassified memories you’d like to share? Feel free to do so in the comments below.