Air Force MARS

The Air Force MARS Phone Patch Net provides HF Radio Telephone Service to all US Military, Coast Guard, and Department of Homeland Security aircraft. The net is staffed 24/7 by members of the Air Force MARS. Photo of phone patch operation at USAF MARS Auxiliary Station AFA5RS in Indiana.




(ARRL) Nov. 2, 2010 -- Richard Jenson -- a program manager at the Air Force Network Integration Center at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois -- has been selected as the new Chief of Air Force MARS.

Jensen replaces Technical Sergeant Jason E. Sandifer, who served as Interim Chief since May when USAF MARS Chief Allen Eiermann, K3LSR, retired. AFNIC is the headquarters of the USAF MARS organization.

According to USAF MARS Public Information Officer David J. Trachtenberg, N4WWL/AFA3TR, Jenson’s appointment provides an opportunity to more closely align the organization’s capabilities with the expanded MARS mission, as reflected in DoD Instruction 4650.02:

“The DoDI -- issued in December 2009 -- reaffirmed the value MARS provides to the Department of Defense, outlined the MARS-related responsibilities of the heads of the military departments and senior-level officials within the Office of the Secretary of Defense and established the foundation for a broader integration of MARS into DoD and US government operations.”

Trachtenberg said that Jenson takes the helm of an Air Force auxiliary organization “with a proven track record of accomplishments” that includes providing training and communications support to individual units of the Air National Guard, facilitating daily phone patch links between ground stations and military aircraft in flight and supporting disaster relief efforts in Haiti after the devastating earthquake earlier this year.

“I am honored to have been selected to lead this organization of dedicated volunteer radio communicators and am enthusiastic about my new responsibilities,” Jenson said. “The members of Air Force MARS can be rightly proud of their service to the nation, and I am eager to work with all of them as we enhance our ability to serve those who serve us.”




MARS PHONE PATCH CONSOLE at Langley Air Force Base in late 1960s from web article by John Dilks, K2TGN


RTTY EQUIPMENT and other gear at Langley AFB MARS station from web article by John Dilks, K2TGN




The U.S. Air Force operated the Convair B-36 "Peacemaker" from 1949 to 1959. It had the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built, although there have been larger transports. The B-36 was the primary nuclear weapons delivery vehicle of the Strategic Air Command. It was replaced by the Boeing B-52, which made its debut in 1955. 

Photo of B36 Convair Peacemaker over Lowery Air Force Base Denver in the 1950s. 



(Condensed from Thomas S. Snyder, General Editor, “Air Force Communications Command: 1938-1991 – An Illustrated History”)

The Military Amateur Radio System, better known as MARS, was jointly formed by the Army and Air Force on 26 November 1948. In 1952, it was renamed the Military Affiliate Radio System. Its main purpose was to create interest among amateur civilian radio operators in military radio communications practices and procedures in order to provide a pool of trained personnel in case of national emergency. Its predecessor, the Army Amateur Radio System, was formed in 1925 with the coordination of the civilian American Radio Relay League. When all amateur radio broadcasting was terminated following Pearl Harbor, the program was disbanded. (p. 76)

Originally, membership in MARS was restricted to off-duty active or reserve personnel, but on 26 September 1950, membership was opened to Federal Communications Commission-licensed amateur radio operators. (Photo caption, p. 76)

The MARS mission was enlarged in 1952 to allow transmission of quasi-official communications and messages from the Red Cross. It also served the Federal Civil Defense Agency and carried official Air Force message traffic during emergencies when established systems were not operating. During 1954, the Air Force Chief of MARS authorized mobile units capable of sustained operations for use at disaster scenes. By 1959, MARS was empowered to back-up all Air Force communications circuits, which, in turn, brought it into the domestic contingency planning of the numbered air force in whose jurisdiction they resided. (pp. 76-77)

The MARS program grew to over 8,000 members by 1956. The size of the program was outdistancing the ability of the MARS directors, one Air Force officer for each major Air Force command, to adequately and effectively control them. Therefore, the Air Force decided in 1955 to create a civilian MARS coordinator for each state to help manage the program. (p. 77)

During the 1950s, the Air Force MARS program provided communications assistance during military operations and emergencies as envisioned by its founders. For example, MARS stations were authorized in Korea in 1953. A MARS station was established in New Zealand in 1956 to support Antarctic explorations during Project DEEP FREEZE. In addition, MARS members provided radio aid on many occasions during rescue operations following airplane crashes and during natural disasters. (p. 77)

[In the 1960s] the Air Staff assigned operation of MARS to the new command [Air Force Communications Service – AFCS]. MARS stations located at Air Force bases were to be used primarily as a back-up or emergency communication system for the Air Force. The main components of the Air Force MARS program were military radio stations located on bases and stations throughout the world and civilian amateur radio operators. (pp. 103-104)

By 1964, AFCS controlled the MARS duties for all major air commands, and had become the single manager for the entire Air Force MARS program. The Vietnam conflict dramatically increased the use of MARS stations by AFCS in the sixties, providing an essential link between servicemen and their families. The 1964 Alaskan earthquake also demonstrated the importance of the MARS system by providing emergency communication support. (p. 104)

Alaska was the site of special AFCS activity early in January 1964, when MARS became the state’s emergency back-up communication system. The timing was providential. In March, communication systems in Alaska were put to a critical test when the most severe earthquake ever recorded in North America crippled the state. The earthquake damaged terminal structures, communication equipment, cables, and open wires. Because of the damage, MARS was the only means to alert the lower 48 states of the disaster, and for several days MARS was the main system of communication in the earthquake area. (p. 114)

Probably nowhere in the world did MARS play a greater role in improving the morale of military personnel and their loved ones than in Vietnam. In late 1965, telephone facilities in Vietnam were limited to a single line to the United States, and at most could handle only 30 servicemen’s telephone calls per day at a rate of about $12 for three minutes. High costs and shortages of both equipment and manpower prohibited installation of additional telephone facilities in that area. The chief of MARS offered a solution whereby portable MARS radio stations were airlifted immediately to Vietnam. Servicemen could then speak to the United States through the use of a telephone patch, or they could send a written message, called a MARSgram, which would be relayed by radio teletype to a MARS station equipped to receive the message. The MARSgram was then relayed by radio to a MARS station nearest the serviceman’s home. (p. 135)

By 14 December 1965, seven Vietnam MARS stations were operating, and more than 17,000 teletype messages and 400 telephone patches were processed during the 1965-1966 Christmas holiday season. By 1 May 1966, AFCS had established five MARS stations in Thailand and by November 1966, 11 MARS frequencies provided direct telephone patching from Vietnam to the United States. During 1966, the 1964th Communications Group placed more than 14,000 telephone calls by way of MARS. The number of messages and phone patches increased with each year. Between 1 January and 30 June 1968, MARS operators handled more than 80,000 phone patches and between 1 July 1968 and 30 June 1969, they handled approximately 210,000 phone patches. During the period between July 1969 and 30 June 1970, an average of 20,000 phone patches a month were made to bring Air Force personnel in Southeast Asia in contact with their families. The boost to morale was tremendous. As one operator in Da Nang put it, “When a soldier gets a letter from home, he's happy. When he sets down the MARS telephone receiver after talking to someone special back home, he’s ready to scale 10-foot walls.” (p. 136)

The phone patching was nearly a free service for the servicemen. The MARS service itself was free, but the caller might have to pay a dollar or two for the commercial phone call portion of the patch from the MARS civilian operator to the person called. A few MARS stations even paid this charge. A group of businessmen in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, picked up the cost for 70 percent of the MARS calls transmitted through that city. Their bill in 1970 ran about $1,500 a month. One of the most prominent MARS stations was Senator Barry Goldwater’s station (AFA7UGA) in Phoenix, Arizona, which placed well over 100,000 phone patches between 1967 and June 1973. (pp. 136-137)

Since 1948, the MARS program had amply demonstrated its utility as a backup or auxiliary communications system for military, civilian, and disaster officials during periods of emergency. Designed to create interest among civilian amateur radio operators in military radio communications and to provide an additional source of trained radio operators in case of a local or national emergency, the MARS program also proved to be a morale-building communications link between separated servicemen and their families. The main components of the program were the military radio stations and civilians who voluntarily operated their own stations in the MARS network. (p. 171)

A general disinterest and budget restraints threatened the program in the mid-seventies. These budget restraints were countered by centralized reorganization and consolidation of many stations into existing base command posts, thus helping lower cost without destroying the concept. Transfer of control of the program from Air Force headquarters to AFCS headquarters, and emphasis on the need for a simple communications backup supporting war readiness brought a new vitality to the system after 1978. War and contingency planners placed increased emphasis on MARS for emergency support. MARS radiomen remained confident that the reduced number of stations and membership could carry out the MARS mission in peacetime as long as the program was actively monitored. (p. 172)

MARS reestablished command and control communications between the Strategic Air Command headquarters and its wing at K.I. Sawyer AFB, Michigan, when the base cable was severed in 1970. In 1974, failure of the commercial telegraph cable isolated Williams AFB, Arizona, for six hours. Again, the base MARS stations established communications with the Air Training Command headquarters until normal communications could be restored. In 1978, the MARS program saw its first seagoing station when AFCS headquarters granted a MARS license to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine research vessel, Miller Freeman. When the United States Embassy in Tehran, Iran, came under attack on 14 February 1979, normal communications with the continental United States and the western world were severed. For nearly a week, the MARS station located at Andrews AFB, Maryland, augmented vital communications. At times, MARS provided the only communications link between Iran and United States officials in Washington, D.C. As always, the MARS program stood ready to provide backup communications in cases of emergency, as it had for more than 32 years. (p. 173)

…AFCS continued to provide air traffic control and communication services in Southeast Asia throughout the early seventies. In 1970, air traffic handled by control towers in South Vietnam still accounted for 85 percent of all traffic in the Pacific Communications Area, with Da Nang AB and Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam, directing the most air traffic. Military Affiliate Radio Stations remained in operation until the actual day of base closure at each station and become the only contact with home for personnel during their final days in South Vietnam. (p. 185)

Under the direction of AFCC, the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) continued its long-standing service into the 1980s. When high frequency radio was “rediscovered” in the 1980s, there was an accompanying renewed interest in MARS. As Maj Gen James S. Cassity, Jr., the AFCC Commander stated: “It has been proven, time and time again, that MARS, dspite all the new, technologically advanced communications systems that we come up with, gets us through when everything else fails.” (p. 229)

Given these circumstances, by the late 80s AFCC personnel began to push strenuously for the modernization of the MARS system and its full use for the purpose for which it had been established originally. In 1988, the MARS network itself was given a boost. On 12 September, the MARS station at Travis AFB, California, became the fourth “key” MARS station, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (The other three were Scott, Andrews, Rhein-Main.) This meant that the Travis station now fulfilled the function as the “Gateway station” to the Pacific. By 1989, the new Pacer Bounce radios had been delivered to all MARS Class A stations, and two critical HQ AFCC personnel vacancies were filled: the long-vacant USAF MARS’s director’s position was filled in May by MSgt Jeffrey Trimmer, and the Assistant Director’s position was filled in September by TSgt Michael Lyles. (p. 229)

One potential problem faced by the MARS network in the mid-80s was the decreasing number of MARS volunteers. At its peak during the Vietnam era, the MARS network had nearly 20,000 members. By 1987, the services had scaled back to approximately 12,000, of which 3,300 were Air Force members. Significantly, by 1987, the average age of the current MARS members was the mid-fifties. Consequently, the Air Force and Department of Defense placed increasing emphasis on recruiting youthful, quality MARS members. By the end of the decade, this recruitment effort was beginning to pay dividends. In 1989, for example, over 350 new applications for Air Force MARS memberships had been received. (p. 229)

As always, the MARS program stood ready to provide backup communications in cases of emergency. Perhaps the most spectacular example of the decade was when Hurricane Hugo, the most destructive hurricane of this century, swept through the Caribbean then hit the southeastern United States on 22 September 1989, coming ashore at Charleston, South Carolina. Hugo passed almost directly over the Charleston AFB MARS station. Throughout the whole ordeal, however, the MARS station stayed on the air, providing information on the hurricane’s path, reports on damage and casualties, and requests for aid. This MARS station remained on the air for eight days without interruption, supporting the entire Charleston area. (pp. 229-230)

During this same emergency, on St. Croix, one of the US Virgin Islands, local government officials specifically requested a MARS team to come in and set up reliable high frequency communications. The MARS network also provided emergency communications when an earthquake rocked northern California on 17 October 1989. During the first 48 hours after the quake, the MARS station of the 1901st Communications Group at Travis AFB, handled over 500 emergency messages. (p. 230)

In 1985, AFCC communicators were very active when a severe earthquake struck Mexico City and other Mexican towns. The Kelly AFB, Texas, Military Affiliate Radio System station went into around-the-clock operations to relay information between the US Embassy in Mexico City and the State Department Task Force in Washington, D.C. Within hours of the first shock waves, people from AFCC’s 5th Combat Communications Group, Robins AFB, Georgia, deployed to the Benito Juarez Airport to provide communications between the airport and the US Embassy. (p. 254)