Cape Charles Air Force Station

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Cape Charles Air Force Station (1950-1981) - A Cold War Air Force Radar Station first established in 1950 on Fort Custis in Northampton County, Virginia. Renamed Cape Charles Air Force Station on 1 Dec 1953 after the location. Initially assigned a Lashup System ID of L-15, a Permanent ID of P-56, later a Sage ID of Z-56. Abandoned in 1981.

Cape Charles Air Force Station, 1958.


Established in 1950 as Lashup Radar Site L-15 and became operational in April 1950 manned by the 771st AC&W Squadron. The station initially had both a Ground-Control Intercept (GCI) and an early warning mission. The early warning mission involved tracking and identifying all aircraft entering their airspace while the GCI mission involved guiding Air Force interceptors to any identified enemy aircraft. Controllers at the station vectored fighter aircraft at the correct course and speed to intercept enemy aircraft using voice commands via ground-to-air radio. The site was renamed Cape Charles Air Force Station on 1 Dec 1953.

Initial equipment included the CPS-5 search radar and a CPS-4 height-finder radar. The site was incorporated into the Permanent Network using the same equipment. In April 1952 an FPS-3 search radar was added. In 1955, an FPS-8 was added and converted to a GPS-3, it was removed in 1958. In preparation for SAGE System operation two FPS-6 height-finders were added in 1958.

SAGE System Transition

The transition of the manual GCI system to the automated SAGE system began with the installation of the FST-2 coordinate data transmitter and search radar upgrades. The FST-2 equipment digitized the radar returns and transmitted the digital returns to the SAGE direction center. Under the SAGE System, interceptor aircraft were directed to their targets by the direction center computers and controllers, greatly reducing the need for local controllers and equipment at every radar station.

The FST-2 was a very large digital system using vacuum tube technology. Over 6900 vacuum tubes were used in each FST-2 requiring 21 air-conditioned cabinets, 40 tons of air conditioning, 43.5 kva of prime power, and usually a large new addition to the operations building. The FST-2B modification added two more cabinets but with newer solid-state (transistor) technology to process coded responses from aircraft transponders.

SAGE System Operation

Former Fort Lee SAGE Direction Center now Von Steuben Hall
Cape Charles AFS SAGE Direction Centers & Sectors
Assigned Direction Center Sector
1 Sep 1958 - 1 Apr 1966 Fort Lee SAGE Direction Center DC-04 Washington Air Defense Sector
1 Apr 1966 - 19 Nov 1969 Fort Lee SAGE Direction Center DC-04 33rd Air Division
19 Nov 1969 - 30 Sep 1981 Fort Lee SAGE Direction Center DC-04 20th Air Division

The site began operation as a SAGE site in 1959, initially feeding the Fort Lee SAGE Direction Center DC-04. The search radar was upgraded to an FPS-7B and an FPS-26A height-finder radar was installed. In 1963 the site became a joint-use ADC/FFAA site.

The site also had a Long-Range Inputs (ALRI) receiver site for airborne early warning aircraft. A Navy off-site Seaward Extension Shore Station (SESS) for Pickett ship Stations 16, 18, and 20 who reported to the ADDC at Cape Charles Air Force Station.

Gap Filler Radars

Cape Charles AFS was responsible for the maintenance of three remote unattended gap-filler radar sites. The unattended gap filler sites were placed in locations where the main search radar lacked coverage. These sites were equipped with short range FPS-14 or FPS-18 search radars and FST-1 Coordinate Data transmitters that sent digitized radar target data to a SAGE direction center and to the main radar site. Both the radar set and the FST-1 were dual channel to increase site up time. Maintenance teams were dispatched for regularly scheduled maintenance or when fault indicators on the FSW-1 remote monitoring equipment suggested the site had problems. The FSW-1 also allowed remote operation of specific functions such as channel changes for the radar and for the FST-1, it also allowed remote operation of the diesel generators at the gap filler site. The Cape Charles AFS gap-filler radars were located at Temperanceville, VA; Bethany Beach, DE; Elizabeth City, NC. Two additional sites were planned but not constructed.

Cape Charles AFS Gap Filler Radar Sites (edit list)
ADC NORAD Location State Type From To GPS Notes
P-56A Z-56A Temperanceville VA FPS-14, FST-1 1957-09 1968-06 37.86047,
Bldg. still exists
P-56B Z-56B Bethany Beach DE FPS-14, FST-1 1957-09 1968-06 38.52638,
Demolished for Golf Course
Elizabeth City NC FPS-14, FST-1 1957-09 1968-04 36.2462,
Bldg. still exists

BUIC System

Cape Charles AFS became a BUIC I NORAD Control Center in 1962 and went operational as a BUIC II site on 1 Mar 1966. The BUIC II system provided a backup for a SAGE direction center with the GSA-51 computer system and provided the ability to display sector-wide radar data on consoles for local weapons controllers. The system duplicated the functionality of the vacuum tube direction center computers with the more up-to-date GSA-51 computer system and replaced the FST-2 with a more up-to-date coordinate data transmitter, the FYQ-47.

Cape Charles AFS was not selected as a BUIC III site and reverted to a surveillance site.


Cape Charles AFS and the 771st were transferred to TAC in 1979 and were deactivated on 30 Sep 1981. Coverage of this area was taken over by the Joint Use (FAA/USAF/USN) JSS Oceana Naval Air Station Radar Site when Cape Charles AFS closed.

Physical Plant

The physical plant of the site was divided into the main site, a cantonment area, a housing area, and a radio site. The main site housed the operations buildings, the radar towers, and the backup generators. The cantonment area housed the enlisted barracks, the bachelor officer's quarters, the orderly room, the dining hall, the motor pool, and other support buildings. Apart from the main site was a small housing area for critical married personnel. A separate Ground to Air Transmitter/Receiver (GATR) radio site housed the radio equipment for directing aircraft intercepts.

Cape Charles AFS Major Equipment List
Search Radar HF Radar Data Systems Radio
Unit Designations
  • 771st Aircraft Control & Warning (AC&W) Squadron (1950-1959)
  • 771st Radar Squadron (SAGE) (1959-1974)
  • 771st Radar Squadron (1974-1981)
771st Assignments
  • 1 Jan 1950 - Assigned at Ft. Custis, VA, assigned to 503rd AC&W Gp.
  • 6 Feb 1952 - Transferred to 26th AD.
  • 16 Feb 1953 - Transferred to 4710th Def Wg.
  • 1 Dec 1953 - Site redesignated to Cape Charles AFS, VA.
  • 1 Mar 1956 - Transferred to 85th AD.
  • 1 Sep 1958 - Transferred to Washington ADS.
  • 1 Oct 1959 - Redesignated from AC&W Sq to 771st Radar Sq (SAGE).
  • 1 Apr 1966 - Transferred to 33rd AD.
  • 19 Nov 1969 - Reassigned to 20th AD.
  • 1 Feb 1974 - Redesignated 771 Radar Sq.
  • 1 Oct 1979- Transferred to TAC.
  • 30 Sep 1981 - Discontinued

Cape Charles Air Force Station Partial Commanders List (edit list)
Assumed Relieved Rank Name Cullum Notes
1954-04-14 1956-03-02 Maj Ralston Jr., Gilhart N/A
1956-03-02 Maj King, John W. N/A
1968 1969 Ltc Long, Jesse P. N/A
1974 1976 Maj Higginbotham, Edwin N/A

Current Status

The Air Force Station property is now part of the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge in Northampton County, Virginia. Most and perhaps by now all of the main site buildings have been deliberately removed. The housing area is in the hands of individual private owners.

Location: Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge in Northampton County, Virginia.

Maps & Images

Lat: 37.13278 Long: -75.95306

See Also:


  • Cornett, Lloyd H. & Johnson, Mildred W., A Handbook of Aerospace Defense Organization (1946-1980), Office of History ADC, Peterson AFB, Colorado, 31 Dec 1980, 179 pages, Pdf, page 166.
  • Winkler, David F., Searching the Skies: the Legacy of the United States Cold War Defense Radar Program, USAF Hq Air Combat Command, 1997, 192 pages, Pdf, page 161.
  • NORAD/CONAD Historical Summary Jan-Dec 1966, dated 1 May 1967, Command History Division, HQ NORAD/CONAD, Unclassified (originally classified Secret), pdf, pages 28-31, Backup Intercept Control Systems
  • USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) Database Entry: 2086954


Visited: 26 Jul 2010

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