A MARS Operator, AAT3OT, using a radio to communicate with the Army Reserve in the MARS Emergency Communications Unit trailer. (Wikipedia)
The Air Force spends millions of dollars to ensure its pilots can communicate with commanders and controllers, but if that equipment fails, there’s a small group of dedicated volunteers making sure that the pilot stays in contact in a simple way: through a telephone.
The Military Auxiliary Radio System is made up of a group of licensed amateur radio operators with equipment that can patch radio traffic from a pilot through a traditional telephone line. While the program has been around since 1948, there has been a dramatic drop in traffic, so the volunteers are working to get the word out.
“There are so many new people flying now, they don’t know about MARS anymore,” said John McGee, the national phone patch net manager for the Air Force MARS system.
During the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom about 10 years ago, MARS dispatchers coordinated about 1,000 patches per month. Now, volunteers receive about eight to nine requests per day, McGee said.
MARS patches two types of radio calls: helping pilots and aircrews when their equipment has failed, and more commonly patching them through for “morale calls” to family or friends.
These morale calls are how pilots typically get familiar with the system before they need it in an emergency.
Capt. Patrick Lasher, a C-17 pilot with the 21st Airlift Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., has used the MARS system several times after hearing about it from another pilot in his squadron. The system is not officially taught in pilot training, and instead the volunteers rely on pilots to spread the word.
“It’s a word-of-mouth system,” Lasher said. “Unfortunately, it’s not a very commonly used system.”
Lasher said he used it at first to make morale calls to check in with family and become familiar with the system, and eventually used it twice when other equipment on his C-17 failed. Last September during a flight across the country, the Aero-I satellite communication system that relays the C-17’s position failed. Lasher radioed a MARS operator on a designated frequency to get in touch with his command and control center to relay their departure and arrival times.
The same system went out last October when Lasher was flying a relief flight from Dover Air Force Base, Del., to JFK International Airport in New York during Hurricane Sandy. Lasher was patched through a MARS system and called the command center to relay the arrival time.
Since finding out about MARS, Lasher said he has made it a point to tell other pilots about the system and the frequencies. He encourages others to use a MARS operator for a morale call at first to familiarize themselves with the system before they might need it.
MARS volunteers have been on hand in emergencies, and in multiple instances helped save a plane and the crew. About 10 years ago, a MARS operator received a call from a B-1B Lancer crew off the coast of Alaska that had run into trouble and was close to ditching the aircraft.
“We hooked the crew up with maintenance, who did enough to keep it airborne and safely land,” McGee said.
In another instance, the avionics system of a U-2 went offline while the plane was on approach to Beale Air Force Base, Calif. The pilot radioed in and “didn’t play around,” McGee said. “He said, ‘MARS Station, this is an emergency.’ ’’
The MARS volunteer connected the pilot with the command center, who helped him on approach. About 20 minutes before he landed, the instruments reappeared.
“He was shook,” McGee said. “When he landed, he called me on the telephone to thank me. He said he was in bad shape.”
The program is run by a small group of about 20 volunteers in the Air Force phone patch system, most of whom are prior service.
“We’d like to continue, we’re the best program the Air Force has got going,” McGee said. “It costs them nothing, and we can save lives.”