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Kotzebue AFS

1952 to 1984*

Name of Ski Area: Kotzebue AFS (Air Force Station)
Location: Northwestern Alaska, 3 miles south of the village of Kotzebue, 28 miles north of the Arctic Circle, on the coast of Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea.
Type of Area: Gradual hills for downhill runs and open tundra for cross country skiing (all skiing done on military issue skis).
Dates of Operation: 1952-1984 (*in 1984 the minimally attended radar was installed)
Who Built It?: The United States Air Force built this Long Range Radar Station.

Sea level to about ~130'

Lifts: None.  There was no tram built at this Long Range Radar Station.
Facilities: A full-service remote Long Range Radar Station camp that would support over 100 servicemen.  The Kotzebue Airport was used for AFS air services.

Kotzebue AFS was one of the ten original aircraft control and warning sites of the Alaskan air defense system.  Minimally Attended Radar (MAR) became operational in 1984 and from then on only a handful of contractors were needed to maintain this radar site.

As with other ACC Radar Stations around Alaska, Kotzebue AFS had ski equipment on hand for the servicemen to use.  There is record of servicemen stationed at the Kotzebue AFS cross country skiing.  This site probably can not be considered a true lost skiing site like some of the other Radar Stations because the Village of Kotzebue is nearby.  And no doubt over the years a few residents of this village have skied to this site.

Sources of Information:

Tim Peters; The Online Air-Defense Radar Museum - www.radomes.org/museum/; Mike Soukup


~  PHOTOS  ~

(All Courtesy of The Online Air-Defense Radar Museum, www.radomes.org/museum/
Go to this great web site for many more pictures and stories of Kotzebue AFS)

(click on any image to expand it)

A 1969 shot shows some of the radar station and the White Alice communications site in the distance.

The Kotzebue AFS patch.

Mid 1970's aerial view of Kotzebue AFS.  The white expanse in the distance is the frozen Kotzebue Sound.
An excerpt from the 1962 "Guide to AAC Remote Stations" about the Kotzebue AFS. A recent shot (1998) of the Minimally Attended Radar facility at the site of the former Kotzebue AFS radar station. 2003 picture of the Air Force Long Range Radar Facility in Kotzebue.

~  MAPS  ~

This large scale map shows where the Kotzebue AFS was located in northwestern Alaska.

(click on this map to expand it)

A zoomed in view of a topo map shows the location the Kotzebue AFS site - on a small bluff a few miles south of the Village of Kotzebue.

(click on this map to expand it)

Research Correspondence 
[Tim Peters - 18 November 2005 email] 

Hello,  I came across your web site mysteries.  I was stationed at Kotzebue AFS April 1971 - Apr 1972.  There were skis and poles available for use at the site but there was no designated ski area.  We occasionally tried skiing, but the frigid temps, lack of daylight,  and usually frozen surface did not make the experience enjoyable.  I enjoyed your website.   Thanks,   Tim Peters  

[Mike Soukup - 31 December 2011 email] 

I came across your "lost ski areas" website via my idle curiosity searching for websites that have to do with the now defunct ground intercept and surveillance radar sites in Alaska.

I was stationed at Kotzebue AFS from November 1979 to July 1980. I was a 1st Lt in the Air Force at the time, and I was the Operations Officer.

Before going further, I will refer to Kotzebue AFS as "Kotz" because that's how we usually referred to it back then. Also, what follows is not in any organized fashion -- just a jumble of thoughts from a confused mind!  And I have lots of possibly interesting stories to tell, but even though I would mention no names, someone reading these who was at Kotz during my time will almost certainly know whom I would be talking about. But I may see if I can get away with one or two.

I was sent to Kotz after spending about six months at Murphy Dome AFS near Fairbanks.  When possible, ops officers for the "outer" sites were picked from weapon controllers assigned to either Murphy or King Salmon AFS. The idea was to send people with some degree of experience and knowledge of how the Alaskan NORAD Region/Alaskan Air Command radar sites were organized and functioned. When I found out I was to be the "chosen one" to fill the ops officer slot at Kotz I was not too happy. Murphy was the most "civilized" site in the state. But insiders told me Kotz was actually a well-kept secret: personnel at Kotz were not chained to the site as we at Murphy were and the chief attraction at Kotz was the nearby town of Kotzebue, which was a sort of wide open frontier town at the time. Lots of bars and friendly women were in abundance, and the town had an airport with frequent regular flights in and out.

The latter made it rather easy for a military guy to meet his DEROS (date of estimated return from overseas, i.e., when his one year ton bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbl;ur was up) so he could head for home ASAP. But there were a coupe of exceptions. I recall an airman we had, originally from New Orleans. Upon leaving Kotz he was separating from the USAF, and going to New Orleans. His DEROS arrived, his bags were packed, he had a plane ticket on a Wien Air Alaska flight to Anchorage, and he was super-psyched to be going home. The night before we had a big Bon Voyage party for him at our unofficially sanctioned all-ranks club. That day, a big winter storm blew in, and all flights were cancelled. When the storm lifted 2 or 3 days later we practically had to peel him off the wall, he was so strung out from emotional exhaustion (not to mention an excess intake of alcoholic beverages), loaded him into the "Cat" (a tracked vehicle we used in the winter to go to the town and back), and got him to the airport.

A note here: so far as I know Kotz never had a USAF owned runway, as implied on your webpage. The Kotzebue Airport served us very well.

I arrived at Kotz one winter's evening in November 79. A few of the guys from the site picked me up in the Cat. The site commander, who was a short timer with only a couple of months to go before DEROSing, met me. He spent the next two days briefing me, but not about the site's mission, operations, procedures, routines, etc. Instead, it was all about his philosophy of running the site and how I needed to be very careful to not screw up how he had set things up. Basically, he ran a three-ring circus for his benefit and to keep the troops happy and on his side. There were some valuable and essential items he told me that stuck with me, fortunately. A friendly relationship between the site and the town was always on a razor's edge. A very tiny, trivial action or incident to me was much bigger than that to the townspeople. About 90% of the town were (and still are I guess) native Alaskans then called "Eskimos" (now Inupiat I think). The natives had not been treated well by the white man in the past, and they were super sensitive to anything that they considered an insult or offense. Back to the commander.  I'll say no more here, except that we did not like each other at all, and I was glad to see him leave shortly afterwards.

A little before this the site got a new NCOIC/First Sergeant, MSgt Bill Norton. He was a great guy and I learned a lot from him. Good man! I wish someday to touch base with him again. And then we got a new Site Commander, Maj. Don Baughan. Like Norton, I very much liked and respected him! They made the remainder of my time there almost a pleasure.

I settled into my job rather quickly, though I often felt I was flying a bit blind at times. I was a rather inexperienced young officer and I had a lot to learn. Fortunately, Baughan, Norton, and a couple other NCOs. helped me out a lot.

In my day there were maybe 50 or 60 people total at Kotz. I heard that in prior years the total was around 100. But the manned radar sites in Alaska were due to soon be phased out, to be replaced by "minimally attended radar" sites. These were to be more or less automated. So, manning at all the sites was gradually being drawn down. Total manning was dropping, and the support positions (dining hall, supply, radar maintenance, facilities upkeep) that were done by military personnel had been taken over by civilian contractors from RCA Corporation. Operational functions (surveillance and ground controlled radar interception, i.e., weapons controlling) were still done by military people. Ironically, the job to be done remained almost as big as before, but with fewer people to do it. Thus, there was not a big amount of free time for anyone, and the guys had to schedule any time off site and their recreation activities very carefully. In addition to us USAF guys and RCA contractors, we had two Army officers living with us. They were advisers to the local National Guard unit.

My recollection is that we were a pretty good group of people at Kotz. I don't remember any serious personnel issues, bad behavior, misconduct, etc. We got along well, and worked as a team. However, before I arrived, one of the airmen was accused of taking advantage of an underage girl in town (and in Alaska back then "underage" was any girl under 18, quite strict in those days compared to other States). The townspeople wanted to literally lynch him, the accused said he didn't do it, and it took a bunch of higher ups in the Air Force, the State of Alaska, and town officials to settle the matter without the airman going to jail, or worse. The guy was still at Kotz when I showed up, and I got to know him rather well. I have always tended to be on his side of the story. I think he was basically "set up" by a few townfolk who did not like him.

During my stay, there were no female military personnel at Kotz, and this was true at all the other "outer" sites. However, by ones and twos, female officers were being assigned to the larger sites like Murphy Dome, King Salmon, and Campion (I had served previously with a few of them and I thought highly of them; they did excellent jobs). I did hear that, in earlier years, a few female NCOs had been assigned at a few of the Alaskan sites, but that was quite rare. The brass was very reluctant to send women to any of the sites, especially the more remote ones. I'm sure I sound like a real chauvinist today, but I had to agree with the brass. Sending a woman or two, officer or enlisted, to these sites would have almost certainly caused some serious morale and behavior problems.

At Kotz, though, none of the above really mattered. There were more than a few unattached (well, usually) women, Inupiat and white, in town for the Kotz guys to befriend. Some relationships were very short lived, others continued for a year or until the Kotz guy rotated Stateside. A number of the women would see a boyfriend leave, then take up with a new guy to the site. And so on it went. I remember that more than a few of the native girls were remarkably attractive. They looked very Asian, and while most were short and medium build, some were quite tall and slender. It was common to have a number of the women from town on site with their boyfriends for a couple of days at a time. This was not a situation the brass in Anchorage would like to come face to face with, though everyone knew it happened. Out of sight, out of mind.

But one time they did come face to face with it during my tour. There was a young woman nicknamed "Twiggy" who was quite a free spirit and drank too much, and she was well known to the Kotz crew. One evening she was with one of the guys, and she decided to go back to town later than night. But she had too much to drink. That morning, a number of officers and NCOs from Elmendorf flew in to perform a no-notice "white glove" inspection. LTC Don Baughan, MSgt Bill Norton, and I escorted these people around while they looked at whatever they wanted to look at. The Colonel in charge of the inspection asked what a door in the hallway of one of the enlisted airman dorms led to. Don said it was a janitor's closet. The Colonel wanted to see inside it, so Don opened the door. Inside was Twiggy, nearly nude, passed out, and snoring softly. I never did learn how Don and Bill handled that during the outbriefing. I was not invited.

Before I close out this rather long and boring email, I'll relate one thing of local historical interest. On the road to the site from town, near one of the airport's runway's end, was a largely intact wreckage of an old Constellation airliner. It had crashed some years earlier at the airport. Some local entrepreneur bought the wreckage, hauled it to near the end of this runway (outside the city limits, where alcohol was forbidden at the time), refurbished the inside of it, and set up a liquor bar inside. He named it the "Flying Martini". It had been out of business for some time when I showed up, but was a popular sight to show tourists who came to Kotzebue. The tour bus often would drive out to our place to show the gawkers a real Cold War military radar installation at the ends of the Earth. The bus would stop briefly outside one of the recreation halls where there were a lot of gallery type windows. Every now and then, 4 or 5 of the Kotz crew would wait for the bus to show up, stop, and then they would in unison "moon" the tourists.

Well, I'll sign off for now. If you would like more info about Kotz or Murphy, I'll be glad to tell you more. I have some photos, buried somewhere, that I will try to find and send to you of both sites.

Happy New Year!

Kindest regards,
Mike Soukup

P.S. As for skiing I remember only one person trying to ski at Kotz. That was Bill Norton and he was an avid cross country skier from New York (or wherever). He got a pair of skis and skied around the site. My recollection is that he did this only once or twice, and was not impressed.

[Mike Soukup - 01 January 2011 email] 

After my earlier email to you, which was a disgorgement of mindless verbage the likes of which have not been put in print before, I want to hopefully give more info about Kotz that is of more interest to you. There's, once again, no organization of thoughts here.

1. Skiing. During my time at Kotz I remember just one of the site personnel trying cross country skiing - that was MSGT Bill Norton, an experienced skier. I recall he went out a couple of times, but did not seem too thrilled. I do not remember if he ever said why. It was certainly not for lack of snow. Being very cold and dark may have been factors, though. In Kotzebue the town I saw a few people on cross country skis. It was not common. Most residents (natives and whites) used snowshoes or snowmobiles to get around. Even dog sleds were more common than skis. Skiing as a recreation did not seem popular.

2. Recreation. All the radar sites in Alaska had recreational activities and facilities available to site personnel. Examples were ceramics making, lapidary, bowling, a library, and billiards. Small gyms were also available. When I was stationed at Murphy Dome AFS I was surprised how many of the guys were practically addicted to making ceramic cups, bowls, etc. I remember a sergeant at Murphy who cried when his new coffee mug blew up in the kiln because of a hidden air pocket in the clay. Bowling was pretty popular, too, as was basketball in the gyms. Movies (I think we got in 5 of them per month (or week?) were, of course popular, though the town also had a small movie theater. At Kotz, however, the proximity of a town of 3000 people with bars, women, bigger gyms, a Dairy Queen, a modern hotel, named the Nu Luk Vik (I think) with a good bar, and so on was more interesting than ceramics or lapidary. The guys had a basketball team that regularly played and scrimmaged against various B-ball teams in town. I believe our gym had a full size court, and the town teams often came up to play games with us. So, we did not have to rely on the usual USAF-sanctioned recreation provided. At the truly remote sites, it was a different story. We had it very good compared to our sister sites, even Murphy Dome, near Fairbanks.

3. Relations with the town. The town of Kotzebue, four miles away by road, was very important to us. In addition to the airport that we relied heavily upon, it provided our people with a massive stress relief valve our guys needed to keep morale up. If the town had been 40, 50, or more miles away, then everyone would have known that we would just have to make do with a lot less, just as at the really remote sites, and we would have accepted it. But, at four miles, it was just too close to ignore. Generally, relations were pretty good. We knew that for us to be a part of the community and receive its benefits, we had to be good neighbors, and allow the townspeople access to the site (limited of course). The access consisted of welcoming them to our club and bar, and the rec facilities like the gym. Many true friendships existed between site personnel and the town folk. But we had to be very careful. About 90% of the town was native Alaskan, Inupiat people, or Eskimos as commonly known then to outsiders. White men in the past had much mistreated them, so many were suspicious of us, or carried "chips on their shoulders". The officers and NCOs were always very careful to tell us about this, so we would not unwittingly spark an ugly feud. On the rare occasions when someone from the town got too drunk in our bar, or was looking to start trouble, we would call the local Alaska State Troopers to the site to calm things down and deal with the situation. The Troopers were right out of a Jack London novel: physically big, strong frontiersmen types, combined with intelligence and knowledge of their environment. They had generally earned the trust of the locals, and they were the guys carrying the "big sticks", respected (or feared) by all. When our guys were in town, and one of them got a little too "frisky", the other guys would lasso him in, and take him back to the site. But I don't think this happened but rarely. I know of only one time when the cops had to be called, but it was before my time.

4. Booze and bars. The Kotz site maintained an officially unsanctioned lounge with a bar that served beer and liquor. Needless to say, it was an hugely popular attraction on the site with those of us who lived and worked there. I think we all spent more time there than was probably good for us. We were open to the townspeople who wanted to join us. In previous years at all the sites, most, maybe all, had official USAF All Ranks clubs that served alcohol. The larger sites had Officers' Clubs and NCO Clubs. By the time I got to Alaska, decreasing manning at the sites forced these official clubs to shut down. So, the sites worked out permissions with the brass at Elmendorf to set up unofficial lounges where booze could be served and the folks could drink some beer, play cards and dice, talk, whatever, when off duty. At most of the sites, this was never any big deal. These lounges were expected to be financially self sufficient: pay as you go. The guys at Elmendorf would allow the supply flights to the sites to carry beer, so long as it was prepaid. Needless to say, these lounges were not to be making profits, either. Kotz was different, and this caused the Bosses at Elmendorf a lot of worry, or so I was told. The Kotz bar and lounge was rather large, and served hard liquor as well as beer. And we had civilians from the town up drinking and interacting with us frequently. We  charged them for their drinks, just like any other bar in town would. But we were able to charge less than the bars in town did. In town, a bottle or can of beer cost $2.00, regardless of brand. So, a case of beer of town cost $48.00, period. Quite expensive at the time. In our Kotz bar, I think we charged about $1.00 per can or bottle, possibly less depending on brand, but I do not remember exactly. So, we were a popular place to go. What was dicey is that, although we were on federally owned land, a military installation, we were selling to, and providing a bar for, the civilian town folks, yet were not an official military club. We were likely right on the edge of violating Alaska State liquor laws. Both Alaska and the USAF turned a blind eye of sorts to this, gambling that there would never be some incident that would cause attention to this. In my time there, we were lucky, I suppose, that nothing happened. And I am grateful the status quo was maintained! A side issue was that our Kotz lounge began making a profit. We often had money left over after buying beer, booze, and bar supplies. And the profit could be rather big. To deal with this, the site commanders used the profits to buy things for the site and its people for recreational purposes, an example of which follows below. In town, the popular spot for our guys to go to was the Nu Luk Vik Hotel, which was modern and catered to tourists to Kotzebue. But it was also popular with the locals, and was where the girls would go in the evenings, looking to socialize, dance, and, of course, drink with the Kotz guys, both military and RCA contractors. The ladies liked this, because they knew our guys were likely to be more pleasant, peaceful, safe, and fun, than others in town. This did occasionally cause some dissension with a few locals. Another well-known bar was the Golden Whale, where people would go for more serious drinking after the Hotel bar closed. It could be a risky place for our troops to go. Before I arrived, the Commander had placed this joint "off limits" to Kotz personnel, but the ban was lifted conditionally about when I did show up. The place looked kinda sleazy and dangerous to me, and I never went there but once, and just for a short while. I asked the guys to stay away, also.

5.Satellite TV. The town of Kotzebue erected a large satellite receiver antenna not too long before I got there that could receive commercial TV signals from the lower 48, a pretty novel thing in 1979. After intercepting the TV signals, the town re-radiated, at low power, these signals so residents could receive them. I do not know the details, but the town and the Kotz site worked out an arrangement whereby the town directed some of the total signal towards the site. I suppose the USAF brass at Elmendorf approved this, and managed to put up a few bucks so that we could buy our own receiver antenna and equipment to intercept these TV signals, and thus have live TV from the lower 48. The lounge profits were used to help do this and wire up with cable and amplifiers each and every room so that everyone on site could have satellite TV in his room (if he had a TV, an uncommon commodity). In any case, several lounges and breakrooms now had TV. I remember going to one of the lounges with a bunch of the guys after dinner most evenings, and watching the news from TV stations in California, Los Angeles in particular. We would see the stories about massive traffic jams, violent crime, scandals, politics, economic problems, problems in the Middle East and Iran, how the Soviets were doing in their invasion of Afghanistan, etc. We would say things like "God, I'm glad I'm not there having to deal with that" and "this is a better place where we are", yet afterwards some would go back to counting the days until their DEROS when they could go back to the lower 48. But, somehow, I think many of us were genuinely happy we were somehow not a part of this garbage, but far away in Alaska where we had to deal with truly important stuff, such as doing our jobs, defending the U.S., keeping the site running, keeping an eye on the dangerous weather we might be having, would the supply flights be able to get to us on time (bringing in more beer and goodies for the little Base Exchange we had), fixing the water valve leak in one of our heated storage tanks where our water for the winter was stored (we were on serious water rationing for a week or so because of this), and so on. I learned a few things about what was really important back then.



Do you have further information, stories or pictures that you would like to contribute about this ski area?