After leaving Daleville, VA and hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, northbound AT hikers encounter this odd, white golf ball installation on top of Apple Orchard Mountain (elevation 4225ft, mile 771.3). This peak also holds the distinction of being the highest point that northbound hikers will reach for over 1,000 miles until Mt. Moosilauke in New Hampshire. But what is this thing? Well, this facility has a fascinating history!
Bedford Air Force Station
This oddity’s life started as Bedford Air Force Station – created by the Air Defense Command in 1954 as part of a network of early-warning radar installations around the perimeter of the contiguous United States. At first, the 649th Airborne Control and Warning Squadron was a “Ground-Control Intercept (GCI) and warning station,” helping to vector friendly interceptor aircraft to incoming enemy aircraft. In 1959, the unit was re-designated the 649th Radar Squadron and shortly after, in 1960, started to share air traffic control duties with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In June 1975, the Air Force stood down the 649th and the FAA took over sole use of the site1.
As you can see in the archive photo above, the site used to be much larger. Since the FAA took over sole use of the facility, most of these buildings have been razed. See below for an aerial view of what the installation looks like today. The Appalachian Trail (AT) passes through a meadow to the north of the radome; interestingly, the AT used to run through the site and had to be re-routed outside of the perimeter fence2. Northbound hikers pass underneath a rock formation known as “The Guillotine” shortly after leave Apple Orchard Mountain’s summit.
Present Day: Bedford FAA Radar Site
Apple Orchard Mountain has seen a number of different golf balls on its summit since 1954 as radar and tracking technology has evolved. In July 1980, the FAA replaced the original Air Force tracking radar with a “modern” ARSR-3, which was then modified to be a Common Air Route Surveillance Radar in the late 1990’s. The system now provides radar data on domestic and international air traffic to the FAA’s Washington DC Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) as well as NORAD/USAF’s Battle Control System-Fixed through the Joint Surveillance System3. The below photo depicts what lies inside the radome.
The facility is not accessible to the public – there is a fence encircling the property with typical “US Government Property – No Trespassing” signs. Ironically, back when the Station was packed with classified military technology designed to keep us safe from the Russians, the Air Force held public open houses and gave tours! It is also not continuously manned, as Dick Troxel, a former FAA technician states, “almost every function at the base can be remotely controlled and the system can run without human intervention4.”
For a number of interesting archival videos from Bedford Air Force Station, visit this WSLS-10 report on the history of the installation: ‘Golf Ball’ tower has a rich history.