Aloha from Mount Haleakalā

By Manette Newbold Fisher

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Hawaii telemetry operations site retired, land returned to FAA

Maui site during operations
PAU HANA — Sandia used this site in Maui, Hawaii, for telemetry operations, including high-altitude tracking for tests conducted from the Labs’ Kauai Test Facility. After nearly 60 years of service, the Maui site has been retired. (Photos by Max Saad)

After nearly 60 years of service to DOE, NNSA and Sandia, a facility atop Mount Haleakalā on the island of Maui, Hawaii, has been retired. Crews completed demolition and clean-up activities at the facility in March, said Sandia facilities demolition project manager Max Saad.

“I don’t know if many people realize that we had a site in Maui,” Max said. “We still have our operations in Kauai, but this was a different operation.”

Sandia personnel used the Mount Haleakalā facility, which sits at an elevation of 10,300 feet above sea level, for telemetry operations that provided high-altitude tracking for tests conducted from Sandia’s Kauai Test Facility. Now, he said, “telemetry monitoring is done differently.” 

In its prime, the site had a compound, and 15-20 workers would be stationed for several days at a time, Max said. The site had many tractor trailers, instrumentation and power provided by an electrical generator.

It has been about 20 years since Sandia had an active crew at the site to conduct telemetry work, Max said, and due to the complicated list of agencies involved at the site, it took about 15 years to complete the demolition project. 

The Maui site where Sandians worked is owned by the U.S. Department of Transportation and run by the Federal Aviation Administration, Max said. DOE/NNSA leased the property from the DOT.

Property adjoining the site is owned by the U.S. Department of Defense for Air Force Research Laboratories, and the entire site is located on the Mount Haleakalā National Park, overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The U.S. Department of Justice also used a little bit of the site for radio support for the FBI. The property directly to the west of the site is owned by the state of Hawaii, and the road to the site passes through the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy property.

“It might be easier to say which federal agency wasn’t involved in this project,” Max said.

photos of the facility before and after the clean-up
BEFORE AND AFTER — Sandia demolished and cleaned up the main operations facilities on top of Mount Haleakalā, leaving behind two concrete slabs and a large structure that will be used by other agencies.

Physical challenges

Max said that while most employees might think working in Maui is paradise, the demolition project had many obstacles, making it a difficult assignment. 

In addition to working with the many federal agencies, crews also had to contend with the challenge of traveling to the top of the mountain every day.

“It’s no higher than the Sandia Mountains here in Albuquerque,” Max said. “But say you use the tram here, you start at 5,000 feet. In Hawaii, you start from sea level and it takes about an hour and a half each way, so that adds three hours to your workday.”

Max said the road to the site is full of switchbacks, and speed limits are a mere 15-20 miles per hour. Weather conditions can change dramatically during the drive as well.

“It snows on top of the mountains in Hawaii,” Max said. “It sleets, it rains and the wind blows. We spent many days up there when it was 40 degrees with 25-30 mile-per-hour winds. You might be in paradise, but it’s not really paradise at the site. You always look forward to coming down at the end of the day.”

Max said Sandia also had cultural sensitivity experts on-site to make sure that digging and demolition projects did not disturb potential burial sites.

“Thank goodness we didn’t have any issues,” he said.

Max primarily managed the project from New Mexico, but he traveled to Hawaii a few times, and one of the visits unfortunately lined up with Hurricane Isaac in 2018.

“We kind of had it all on this project,” he said, adding that the crew was fine, but had to wait out the storm for a few days before they could get off the island, and the project was delayed a few weeks.

The demolition and clean-up of the site required crews to remove the facilities Sandia built prior to returning the land back to the FAA.

When the project was complete, two concrete pads were left, along with a large structure that will be used by other agencies.

Even though the project had its challenges, Max said there were some highs, too — literally and figuratively.

“You don’t realize how magnificent it is up there looking down at Maui, and looking down at the ocean,” he said. “It’s almost like the moon when you get to some parts, like wow, where is this?”

view of mountain tops shrouded in clouds
MISTY MOUNTAIN — Facilities demolition project manager Max Saad said the view from the Maui facility was magnificent, even though the trek to get there was challenging.