Retired Master Sgt. Dan Holmes is a man in perpetual motion.
When his hands are not actively building or repairing something, the gears in his head are churning – formulating a workaround or a new piece of art. It has been decades since he has had clean fingernails or a decent night’s sleep.
“I have always had to be building. I have to be working,” Holmes said. “I remember back in fourth grade, when they had show and tell, I was the kid who brought in the crystal radio set. We hooked some wires up to an antenna, put in a little earpiece and we listened to the radio. I was hooked right there on radio … if I didn’t have this stuff going on in my head I would go into a funk.”
The perpetually kinetic Holmes is surrounded at home and his office by his handmade creations – violins, guitar amplifiers, radios and electric and manually cranked kinetic sculptures in all shapes and sizes. There’s a rocket ship, a man flying with mechanical wings strapped to his back, John Wayne riding a horse and numerous art-deco style electromechanical machines. Some of those machines are adorned with the likeness of a Native American chief, Masconomet, of the Agawam tribe, who is buried just yards from his office door.
It is with these creations that Holmes accomplishes some of his most prized work, teaching digital-age Airmen how to operate and maintain the older equipment used to perform one of the Air Force’s perpetual missions – monitoring the sun for electromagnetic surges.
The Radio Solar Telescope Network is a network of solar observatories maintained and operated by the 557th Weather Wing, which provide solar observations around the clock.
The RSTN consists of ground-based observatories in Massachusetts, Hawaii, Australia and Italy, which come online in sequence as the Earth rotates to provide 24/7 observations of solar activity.
Holmes and a team of Airmen maintainers and solar analysts with the 2nd Weather Squadron, Detachment 2, man the Sagamore Hill Solar Observatory, near Hamilton, Massachusetts. Nestled among farms, villages and a Native American burial ground, the Airmen on duty there are more likely to see a deer, fox, turkey or coyote than to see another human being – leaving them to focus on their critical mission.
If the solar analysts at Sagamore Hill determine a radio signal signifies a coronal shock wave or coronal mass ejection associated with a solar flare, they alert 2nd Weather Squadron’s Space Weather Operations Center, which, in turn, notifies military and civilian personnel performing space, weather, power and communications missions around the globe.
“The network is a perpetual mission. It never stops,” said Master Sgt. Timothy Yablonski, weather forecaster and Det. 2 chief. “We’re always handing off to the next person in the chain as day progresses into night. If it’s nighttime here in the United States, overseas its daytime and our squadron is still providing space weather observations to our customers – the Combatant Commands, leadership and warfighters.”
The eight individual radios of the AN/FRR-95 Radio Interference Measuring Set at Sagamore Hill utilize three antenna dishes to monitor specific frequencies. The radios incorporate electronics that range from transistors to integrated circuits.
The second system is the A/F 24U-10 Solar Radio Spectrograph (SRS). It uses two antennas, one that looks like the spokes of a wheel and another that looks like a Christmas tree.
Holmes’ career experience makes him the expert on maintaining RSTN sites.
The 23-year active duty veteran began his career as an aircraft maintainer. After enlisting in 1973, he spent the mid-70’s moving from New Mexico to Thailand, Diego Garcia and Korea, maintaining U-2 Dragon Ladies, C-130 Hercules and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters, before ending up at Beale Air Force Base in 1976 working on SR-71 Blackbirds.
He cross-trained out of aircraft maintenance and into weather maintenance at Chanute AFB, Illinois, in 1978. Then, at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, a piece of paper started him on a path to become an instructor.
“Shortly into that tour, a chief approach me with a daily bulletin – this is before computers and e-mail – saying that he thought I would make a pretty good instructor at the weather maintenance school back at Chanute,” Holmes said.
So, Holmes returned to Chanute AFB as a weather maintenance instructor, where he taught electronic set principles to the component level and how to change ball bearings, drive belts and everything in between.
Holmes made his first trip to Sagamore Hill in 1986 during a temporary duty assignment to repair old tube and hybrid transistor amplifiers in some converted camping trailers.
“It was then that I realized Sagamore Hill was special and I knew I had to work my way back here,” Holmes said. “Eight of those old transistor amplifiers are still used in each of our radio telescopes today!”
When Strategic Air Command was dissolved in 1992, Holmes left Omaha, Nebraska, and finally made his way back, becoming the maintenance superintendent at Sagamore Hill.
He retired from active duty five years later when he was accepted at the North Bennet Street School in the Old North End in Boston to study violin making.
After making and repairing violins at the Reuning and Son Violin shop in Boston, he was asked by a contractor in 2002 if he would like to be trained in maintaining the old Hewlett-Packard 1000 computing system used by all of the optical and radio observatories.
Shortly after, he returned to Sagamore Hill when the Air Force hired him back to teach Airmen the maintenance skills they would need when deploying to all RSTN detachments.
“Every bit of that (experience) directly relates to maintaining and repairing the Solar Radio Telescopes today. The technology we are using is only two generations removed from tube electronics and is being mechanically operated,” Holmes said. “The problem is that the [Air Force] technicians are trained formally for electronics and mechanical structures four to five generations past that. You cannot send an Airman out to perform this kind of maintenance without specialized training, which is near impossible to find. And if you don’t, the person is being set up to fail. You can take that to the bank.”
Holmes had to devise a two-week course for incoming technicians at Sagamore Hill and Airmen deploying to the other detachments, without working on the actual weapons system.
Because the mission is constant, components cannot be taken offline and disassembled for educational purposes and there are no mockups of the equipment available.
“In the pedestal are the gearboxes and motors and everything that drives the dish so it can track the sun across the sky,” Holmes said. “The motor has a coupling shaft that goes to a gearbox that goes to a bullring, etc. I can’t break that stuff down, but I can do it all with my machines, showing how they connect together using our tools and measurement devices. I can even use older components, like this crazy 1955 mini bike I found, to show them aligning a shaft up to a collar, to a chain, to a clutch. Relying on the Air Force’s cognitive learning theory, these tasks directly align themselves to working the motors, gearboxes and other pedestal components.”
Holmes then uses the electromechanical art engines to help students visualize magnetic switches and solenoids, which are used in the radio telescope’s mode and calibrating switches. Two antique 1940’s tubes radios show how one receiver can cause the other to screech and whistle. A phenomenon, if it occurred in the observatory radios, would inflate critical measurements.
“Seeing it first hand and then understanding the electronics that caused it locks it down into long time memory,” Holmes said. “The younger students need lots of visual stimulation … the complexity and sensitivity of solar radio telescopes is mind boggling to say the least, but, the student can turn a crank, run an engine and see it all come together right in front of them using art.”
Staff Sgt. Jake Elliott, an RSTN technician at Sagamore Hill, has been on site for a little over a year. At his previous post, Elliott was maintaining airfield systems, such as the control tower radios and the Instrument Landing System at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The fact that those systems also operate on radio waves is about the only similarity with the weapons system at Sagamore Hill.
“I got here and I’m basically learning an entirely new job. The chief of my career field showed up to check in and see how things are going. He is a genius – knows everything about every system he’s ever worked on,” Elliott said. “They told me not to take it personally… but they were telling him that Airmen come here and they just don’t know anything and they’re all gesturing at me the whole time. It was funny because it was true.”
Holmes has occasionally had to extend the course for Airmen and have them apprentice with him until they can get the necessary concepts down.
“In the Air Force mold, if you can take the part out and put it back in and do the alignments exactly two or three times correctly, you’re golden,” Holmes said. “Airmen could have won all kinds of awards, but when they get to Sagamore Hill, they find out that they have to know the hows and the whys and understand everything about the system or an operation before it happens.”
To further their capabilities, Holmes also pushes the Airmen to pursue personal projects during slow days. The projects incorporate skills useful in maintaining the observatory and give the Airmen a skill to pursue in their personal lives along with the confidence of knowing they can work their way through a problem on their own.
“The technicians that are coming here … have no hand skills. If you can’t control the tool on an expensive instrument, you’re going to damage it,” Holmes said. “So I say to them, ‘What would you like to learn to do?’ Elliott said he wanted to make a [challenge] coin. So we started working on it and he is finishing it up at this point. He’s really proud of the thing and he’s already thinking about a next project. All of a sudden he’s doing metalsmithing! Now he is like a shadow. Everything I do out there, he’s right there. I’m explaining everything and he is turning into a good technician.”
Sharing the skills he learned as a violin maker, Holmes is teaching Tech. Sgt. Kyle Duley, the maintenance noncommissioned officer in charge, how to build wood furniture using no nails and only hand tools. He is encouraging self-described “sneaker-head” Staff Sgt. Dustin Williams to design and build his own shoes and is about to begin teaching newly arrived solar analyst Senior Airman Zachary Lopez how to play the violin.
He is even leaning on Yablonsky to take a book binding class at the North Bennet Street School.
Yet, Holmes’ face really lights up when he talks about the progress Elliott has made.
“He’s really turned the corner in his relationship to me, the site and the Air Force. He just reenlisted – I couldn’t be prouder. I consider it pay back to the Air Force for a great career,” Holmes said.