Marines

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At the Twentynine Palms Airport, a tetrahedron wind direction indicator now stands operational after being restored by retired Col. Bill Bouldin, a former Combat Center chief of staff, and his longtime friend Charlie Lewis. The device was used at Condor Field during World War II to aid glider pilots in landing, and was neglected for more than 60 years.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Brian A. Tuthill

Retired Marine resurrects World War II flying aid

14 Oct 2005 | Lance Cpl. Brian A. Tuthill

As you drive on Highway 62 east of the Combat Center, the small and relatively unknown Twentynine Palms Airport comes into view and recently, a bright yellow geometric addition to the runway can be seen which draws its roots from the Combat Center.

There is nothing new about the technology in reality, as it was part of the former Condor Airfield here during World War II until it was cast into obscurity in the 1940s.

Known as a tetrahedron, called that for its triangular shape, it is a swiveling wind direction indicator that once helped glider pilots at Condor from 1942 to 1944.

For nearly 40 years, the device was tucked away aboard the Combat Center, until its resurrection by retired Col. Bill Bouldin with the help of longtime friend Charlie Lewis, and installation at the airport recently after more than four months of work on the tetrahedron’s frame.

“I got a call in 1983 from some of the facilities maintenance personnel at the base who said they were demolishing some old equipment and they had this tetrahedron and they wanted to know if we wanted it,” said Bouldin, who retired as the Combat Center’s chief of staff in 1979. “We said yes, otherwise they were just going to destroy it.”

The device was loaded onto a flatbed and hauled out to the airport and dumped in the field, said the 30-year Marine aviator who served in both Korea and Vietnam.

“When we got our first look at it, it was a horrible sight,” said Bouldin. “It was an array of bent tubing and was crushed and mangled. What happened is that they did not disassemble it, they merely removed a few bolts and then smashed it down in a heap, and that’s the way we got it.”

One of the big fears they had was if all of the parts were still there, since anything could have happened to it over time, said Lewis, a World War II and Korea veteran who served with the Army National Guard.

“There was actually not a piece of tubing on there that was not bent,” said Lewis. “We were just happy that we found all of the pieces there after all.”

A tetrahedron is essentially a wedge with a closed front and an open backside and bottom. With a simple fabric skin, the device acts similar to an airfoil and naturally points into the direction of the wind on a freely rotating base.

This one in particular served pilots who were training at Condor Field as part of the Army Air Corps glider school here. For non-powered aircraft, knowing wind direction is critical especially during landings, where you usually only get one chance for the runway. As the U.S. dismantled its glider corps, the tetrahedron at Condor found its way into storage, said Bouldin.

“The frame of the tetrahedron is about 36 feet long, 16 feet high at its peak and weighs about 300 pounds,” said Bouldin. “The base is made of solid steel, so that weighs somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds.”

“We didn’t start work on it until recently,” said Bouldin. “We figured we’re two old retired guys, we have all of the time in the world, and we would eventually get it done. It’s a good thing Charlie knows how to weld, because that came in handy.”

Following more than 90 hours of sorting, dismantling, welding and painting, the frame was repaired and put to use after the yellow skin was specially ordered and fastened along with nighttime running lights.

The base was set near the existing lighted windsock at the center of the runway, which is standard airport equipment for pilots to use for estimating wind speeds. This was the logical place to set up the tetrahedron, since it is the place pilots naturally look for guidance when landing, said Bouldin.

For many pilots who fly through Twentynine Palms, what may be a strange sight from the highway is a welcomed sight; it gives pilots that extra input and gives a sense of nostalgia, since the apparatus is not common in modern airports, said Patrick Maroney, a maintenance worker for the airport, which is one of six operated by the County of San Bernardino.

“So far it’s been getting great reviews by everyone, and many of them really like the ability to be able to see something from a distance rather than search for a small wind sock or something,” said Maroney. “These guys did a great job on it.”
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