By Capt. JD Helm
Air Force Network Integration Center
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — The Air Force Network Integration Center is celebrating 75 years being the leader in military communications. They have a long history starting with the Army Airways Communications System and leading up to today.
The AACS began as just a system of Airmen and technology performing a combination of communications and air traffic control functions. In January 1943, the War Department established a special communications board headed by Colonel Ivan L. Farman.
Farman’s team moved AACS from being just a peacetime system into large world war operations and gave the AACS a wartime mission of using radio to watch aircraft in flight, signaling the beginning of global communications.
Before this, communication was happening on the regional scale. Communications would leap frog from relay point to relay point.
For example, a radio operator in Miami would send a message to Puerto Rico, relayed to British Guiana, relayed again to Brazil, and once more transmitted through Ascension Island to end up in the Gold Coast. A plane would have to navigate across these routes using each relay point to travel across the ocean. There was no internet, no World Wide Web and no global communications.
World War II, however, was being fought on a global scale.
February 28, 1943, only two months before the AACS Wing activated, the AACS station in Kunming, China, contacted their sister station in Brisbane, Australia. This seemingly small act completed a communication chain that encircled the globe. The United States and its allies now had the ability to relay messages to ground stations and aircraft around the globe, marking the beginning of a connected global communications network, the foundation of today’s Air Force capability of global reach.
October 1943, the North Atlantic region of the AACS network began upgrading to radio-teletype systems. At the time, Morse code was the standard for long distance communications, where a trained operator could tap out five words per minute. The operator would have to master the code, and translate the verbal, written or perhaps typed message into Morse code to be sent out manually via the iconic dots and dashes.
The advancement of the radio-teletype made things easier and faster. The operator simply typed the message into a teletype, similar to a typewriter, which would print out the message on paper tape. The tape is then fed into an automatic head that encoded and transmitted via radio out to the recipient radio-teletype which decodes and delivers a clear text message, not unlike today’s e-mail and fax machines.
In the years following, AACS continued to spread across the globe, putting up stations throughout Europe, Africa and the Pacific Islands. Aircraft would be safely guided through inclement weather, or even enemy fire. AACS Airmen fought, and some died defending these stations as World War II continued. Where the soldiers went, so followed AACS. Only nineteen days after the Tenth United States Army stormed the Okinawa beaches, AACS had a radio installation operational there.
General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, was authorized to arrange the end of the war, August 15, 1945, and utilized the AACS Manila station to transmit the first direct communication between the Allies and the Japanese government.
Nine days later, AACS members led by Colonel Gordon Blake, Army Airways Communications System commander, were among the first Americans to reach the main islands of Japan. Colonel Blake brought with him another first: the first airborne radio station in Air Force history. These Airmen safely guided allied occupation troops to the island.
With the war over, the military began to draw down its massive wartime numbers. This communications beginning almost came to an early end. In 1946, AACS was renamed the Airways Communication Service. The restructure also meant losing over 40,000 military personnel to only having 8,635 members to man 249 stations around the globe.
September 11, 1946, it was renamed to the Airways and Air Communications Service, going back to the original AACS acronym. Shortly following this, many calls were made to abolish the AACS, but the creation of the United States Air Force gave the AACS a new home.
During this tumultuous time, the AACS continued to shine. AACS Airmen guided 276,926 airlift flights carrying over 2.3 million tons of relief supplies as part of the Berlin Airlift. They expanded the radio-teletype network worldwide, providing point-to-point weather data. Soon, AACS would be instrumental during the Korean War.
Seventy-five years later, in the current incarnation of AACS, parts of the mission have changed and the members are fewer. Even with less manpower, they still provide essential communication capabilities to the warfighter. AFNIC continues where AACS started: bringing global communication to U.S. and allied military members in need anywhere, anytime across the globe.