Georges Bank Radar Station, 1957 US Navy Early Warning Radar on Oil Platform

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The Texas Towers were a set of three radar facilities off the eastern seaboard of the United States which were used for surveillance by the United States Air Force during the Cold War. Modeled on the offshore oil drilling platforms first employed off the Texas coast, the were in operation from 1958-1963. After the collapse of one of the towers in 1961, the remaining towers were closed due to changes in threat perception and out of a concern for the safety of the crews.

Planning

Upon re-formation of the Aerospace Defense Command in 1951 to oversee the nation’s developing surveillance radar network, there was concern that shore-based radars along the east coast provided insufficient warning time. A 1952 report from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory looked into the possibility of extending radar coverage by building platforms in the Atlantic using offshore oil drilling technology… Funding for design and construction of the towers was approved in January 1954.

Design

Each tower consisted of a triangular platform, 200 feet on each side, standing on three caisson legs. The structures were constructed on land, towed to site, and jacked up to clear the sea surface by 67 feet. Radar and other equipment was then installed on location.

The platform itself contained two floors housing the living areas; two of the legs held fuel oil for diesel generators, while the third held the intake for the desalinization unit. The platform roof served as a helicopter landing area…

Each platform was equipped with one AN/FPS-3 (later upgraded to AN/FPS-20) search radar and two AN/FPS-6 height finder radars, each housed in a separate spherical neoprene radome 55 feet in diameter. Originally the towers were to be linked to shore by submarine cable, but this was eventually rejected as too costly; the AN/FRC-56 tropospheric scatter microwave link was installed instead…

Logistical support for all three towers was provided by the 4604th Support Squadron, based out of Otis AFB and specifically constituted for this mission. They were originally equipped with H-21B helicopters, which were replaced with three Sikorsky SH-3 helicopters acquired in 1962. The USNS New Bedford was used to supply…

Texas Tower 2 was the first to be come operational, starting limited service in May 1956. It became fully operational in 1958, as did Tower 3; Tower 4 followed in April 1959. The original plan to integrate these radars into the SAGE system had to be modified when the direct cable connection was eliminated; instead, they were used to provide manual inputs.

All the towers were noisy and prone to vibration from the equipment. The relative flexibility of the supports also caused them to shake and sway in response to wind and waves…

Tower 4 was plagued with structural problems from the start. It stood in much deeper water than the other two (185 feet, compared to 80 feet for Tower 2)… Crewmen were frequently seasick from the swaying, and Tower 4 was nicknamed “Old Shaky”.

On September 12, 1960, Hurricane Donna passed over Tower 4, causing severe structural damage… it was decided to reduce staffing to a skeleton crew and prepare to dismantle the station… At the approach of another storm in January 1961 evacuation of the station was impeded by the inability of the commander to make contact with any of his three immediate superiors; nonetheless the New Bedford set out for the platform. As the storm built, the USS Wasp, which was in the vicinity, was also dispatched… Both ships reached the vicinity but could do no more than watch the station disappear from their radar. No survivors were recovered…

The loss of Tower 4, together with the increasing emphasis on ICBMs as the predominant threat, led a reassessment of the remaining towers… it was decided to close the remaining towers… Tower 2 sank and could not be recovered. Tower 3 was then filled with foam before being knocked off its support, and it was successfully returned to shore and dismantled… Radar coverage was taken over by alterations to EC-121 airborne early warning flights.