National Radio Quiet Zone hampering effort to find downed Air Force pilot?

quiet zoneThe search continues for an Air Force pilot who may have ejected from an F-15C that crashed in Deerfield Wednesday morning. Is the National Radio Quiet Zone hampering the search effort?

An article on national news website Gawker offers speculation on the topic of the Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square mile area surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Sugar Grove U.S. Naval Radio Station just over the border in West Virginia. The silent haven was established in the 1950s with plans to catch radio signals from the soviet union bouncing off the moon, and is now used to envelop the listening system at the heart of the National Security Agency’s internal communications monitoring apparatus.

As a former resident of the community of Deerfield with family still living in the area (reporters in town can vouch for me on that; how many Graham mailboxes have you seen driving up and down Deerfield Valley Road today?), I can attest to the eerie sense of silence that you get out in the beautiful Deerfield Valley.

Literally after driving over the mountain ridges on U.S. 250 to make the turn into the Deerfield Valley, it’s like you’ve stepped back into the 19th century. Nothing works, mobile phones at the top of that list, but it can also be hard if not usually impossible to pick up over-the-air radio. Which is by design by the prerequisites of life in the Quiet Zone, which also encompasses Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, even stretching to the Grounds at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Broadcast radio and TV and emergency service communications are tightly regulated within the Quiet Zone, and then by nature, with the surrounding mountains limiting their reach.

A large-scale rescue operation like the one ongoing for the downed pilot, then, would seem to be that much more difficult, not only because of the remoteness of the crash scene, located off a service road in an area with only one public road connecting rural residents with the main highway, but then also by the basic lack of communications services in the area, with everything out that way surrounded by mountains that tend to bottle up the weak signals that can be sent back and forth.

– Column by Chris Graham


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