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McClellan AFB - Sacramento, California
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Articles Index

1961 to 1965

1966 to 1999

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Covers McClellan Articles from 1961 to 1965

A Story by Bob Pollard:

I don’t remember when the equipment arrived, before or after arrival of the original Western Union group. Whenever it arrived the Cherry Hill scenario was the norm. RCA was in charge of all the testing activity and we were told to look and observe, but don’t touch. We did take care of other important matters, like emptying ashtrays. Although, RCA didn’t object, when we worked on Western Union equipment. That wasn’t as much fun though! As time went by W.U. personnel began pushing their way into the RCA realm and did get to participate (a little) in the testing activity. Gradually the controlled turmoil reached the cut over day and the great AUTODIN system celebrated by going on line. Seems this occurred in December of 1962.

During the early testing period one of the RCA supervisors gave me a "Cross" pen and pencil set with the RCA emblem on them. Apparently this was given as a bribe to keep me away from the CDP console. It didn’t work! They tried to take it back, but I was good at arm wrestling, so they lost again and decided to allow me to crowd in.

The various areas of responsibility were assigned according to the training received at Cherry Hill and during the test phase, or as dictated by the Site Manager. Not always to everyone's liking. We all became experts (quote, unquote) in our assigned areas and dumber in the non-assigned areas. The definition of an "expert" will not be stated at this time. Also someone may not like the word "dumber" and will respond to the Editor.

During the normal humdrum existence at an AUTODIN Site an interesting problem occurred on the CDP (selected from one of hundreds). I happened to be involved.

An intermittent problem was occurring while writing to a magnetic tape device from the CDP. The problem didn’t seem to show up when communicating with other I/O devices. Some brilliant CDP personnel (including me) jumped right in to take care of this minor problem. Well, about a week later it was decided by others, that brilliant should be changed to trainee, since the problem still existed. We couldn't get the problem to keep occurring and everything in the magnetic tape transfer channel seemed to check out just fine. About 8 or 9 days (who’s counting) into the problem another supervisor (unknown) and me along with a couple technicians (unknown) were sitting at the CDP console poking buttons, with not a care in the world. Then we happened to notice the BAC (arithmetic) register was counting down while writing to a magnetic tape device. The "light flashed" because this was not a normal happening so naturally being brilliant people, OOP’s trainees, we replaced the appropriate circuit card. Lo and behold it solved the magnetic tape problem.

After that the Site Manager, being a nice guy, decided we could have our brilliant status back. Also all the non-CDP people quit telling jokes about the CDP people.

END

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A Story by Bob Pollard:

One day, while hiding from the Site Manager, I decided to write a Drum diagnostic. It seemed like a good idea and a fun project. Off I went with pencil and paper in hand and started putting down 1s and 0s (good ole machine code). I figured I could accomplish this simple task before the Site Manager found me. This simple task seemed to take longer than anticipated and it was very difficult to hide in a switching center for a month, but after being caught, the Site Manager felt sorry for me and let me continue.

I decided to use alternating 1s and 0s patterns and composed about six different matrices. After many pages of 1s and 0s (coded instructions and data patterns) were completed it all had to be punched in a paper tape. A punched paper tape was one method to get programs recorded on magnetic tape via the CDP. This paper tape had to be input on the Paper Tape Reader connected to the CDP. This is where all the fun began. The tape couldn't be read into the CDP because it caused parity errors (BTPE). The Paper Tape Reader did not like those alternating bit patterns. After correcting the problems in the tape reader logic electronics the memory started registering parity errors. After the memory problems were corrected the Magnetic Tape Units started registering parity errors while attempting to put the diagnostic on magnetic tape. After correcting the write to magnetic tape problem the diagnostic couldn't be read back from tape because of the parity errors. After correcting the read from tape problem it was finally time to try the diagnostic on the Magnetic Drum Unit. The result was basically the same, read and write parity errors. All of the errors were caused due to the gain or loss of data bits.

After correcting the drum parity problems the diagnostic seem to run ok except it took over five minutes to run, which was an excessive run time. The problem was due to the use of consecutive sector addressing, which caused the drum to make a complete rotation before picking up the next sector address. It was necessary to skip a sector address each time because the instruction decode and sector selection electronics were not fast enough to address the next sector in line. After doing a little program rewrite in order to skip the next sector address and jump to the second in line it worked fine. It reduced the run time to about two minutes.

The diagnostic tested the entire addressable surface of the drum. It turned out in order to run this drum diagnostic, input from magnetic tape and all other devices had to be in good order. At least I learned a lot from this little adventure. I think they ended up calling it T&M 600.

I might add, this activity occurred prior to the availability of "AAMPS" (AUTODIN Automatic Maintenance Program System) the maintenance routines that were developed for testing the hardware.

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Covers McClellan Articles from 1966 to Closing

A story by Don Holtzclaw

McClellan - the year of my discontent 1967.

All seemed to be going nicely with my Norton assignment, until McClellan started having some very serious problems. They couldn't stay online! McClellan's problems began with the AF Technicians assuming maintenance responsibilities for the switching center. This is not to say that it was the AF technicians fault for the trouble McClellan got into, it simply points to what was a breakdown in communications between Western Union local management, the military, GS personnel and the Computer Center Technicians.

I made one trip in the fall to assist Lenny Ghiorso in fixing some tough problems in both CDP's. I had been instructed by NYK Headquarters to also take a close look around and see what was going on. When I returned to Norton after the first trip, I wrote a report to Al LaFrance detailing what I believed to be the reasons for McClellan's failing to meet the operating standards. About a month and a half later after returning to Norton, I was again sent to McClellan along with dozens of other personnel from around the country. It seems McClellan had hit bottom, and was flat on its "operational" back. Jet jockeys were flying magnetic tapes out to Norton and Tinker to re-introduce the messages into the system. None, I mean none, of the McClellan Tape Stations could complete a single read-in pass without stopping. Recoveries were knee deep when I arrived.

A higher-up instructed me that after I arrived I was not to participate in actual maintenance, but to observe and inspect equipment. The "Higher-up" was also on site with other "higher-ups". Somewhere, sometime I had come by a reputation for being a "good CDP man". Other military higher-ups were also present on site. The IG team, black coats and black hats, I swear, had heard about "Don, the CDP guy" and couldn't figure out why I wasn't lifting a hand to help out others who were frantically troubleshooting one problem after another. In fact two of them told me so. I referred them to my higher-up and proceeded to do as I was instructed. A lesson I learned during that black period was, it is not good to have a reputation, any reputation, good or bad, when working for the US Government. That is unless you plan to go into politics.

Things just went from bad to worse during December of 1966. Site personnel were frustrated. Many were angry. This included AF, GS and W U personnel. None of the tape drives would function properly during the read cycle, most would "stop" 2 or 3 minutes into the read cycle. Each night some of us would gather in the boss's motel room and try to battle it out as to what the best course of action should be. Al LaFrance made the decision for us. He appointed me as the next Site Manger. Wonderful! Just what I needed when all concerned and responsible parties at McClellan had lost any faith in me. And into management I was going, yet!

Beginning on January 1, 1967, it took us almost two months to gain the confidence of government management. Earlier I had convinced Bob Bernard, Center OIC, to let us take one Tape Station at a time back to the shop and do a complete head alignment and overhaul. One W U technician was a Mandrake on Tape Drives. He saved my bacon on the promise I made to Major Bernard that I wasn't going to blow up his AESC. All tape stations had to be overhauled. All CDP memory currents had to be readjusted. MODEMS had to be cleaned up; many failed units were waiting to be repaired. Art Galbraith had to call that one to my attention. I never was much of a MODEM man, and the list went on. Finally we were able to stabilize the AESC and then slowly move back up to operational standards. It was a good experience for me, but I wouldn't have repeated it for any reasons.

A period of time finally arrived when McClellan was again doing many 100% days in long strings. Then the Group Commander must have received some orders from his higher-ups. "Get some back-up" power for the center installed as quickly as possible. P-55 had closed on the base and they had some Diesels in a shed close to the old P-55 installation, which they decided could be used for the back up power. The Group Commander ordered a "pole line" to be installed from the P55 shed to the AESC shed. It was kind of like a long extension cord.

One night (when I was finally able to go home and sleep) I get a call from Darl McFall, followed by one from Lenny Ghiroso. The center was down flat. "What happened?" I asked. Lenny said you better get over here. It's bad.

A bad electrical storm was going on, so I figured we got knocked off-line by a commercial power hit. When I arrived, the group commander was sitting on the steps that led into the MG room holding his head in his hands. I asked him what had happened. He couldn't exactly explain it to me. I entered the MG room and watched GS engineers scrambling over our MG's. I ordered them off the equipment and told them that someone was going to have to explain to me what happened.

It seems the group commander and the GS engineers collectively decided to try out their new pole line in the face of the storm that was going on. However, they failed to notify W U supervisors, the GS OIC or the military office about the switchover from commercial to the pole line power. One of the GS engineers threw the "big switch" and lightning struck. No, not lightning from the sky, lightening from the "big switch".

All center equipment went "kaplunk" and McClellan was dead in the water. It took us 16 hours to get back on the air, and it cost the government about $125 thousand dollars in component replacement. Almost every diode pack in the memory banks had been fused. Unit power supplies had been damaged, along with other and various sundries partially or totally crippled. When we assayed the mess, I wouldn't have bought McClellan for a dollar. Of course, everyone knows that McClellan survived that fiasco. McClellan survived, but I'm afraid the poor group commander didn't. Not too long after that he was shipped out to the Canal Zone, and we got a full-blooded Apache Colonel as his replacement, that I got along with marvelously. He was my kind of man! Life went back to normal again at McClellan.

END

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Editors Note:

I'm sure some of you remember that the Air Force was not only training personnel to perform the maintenance duties in the ASCs, but also wanted to assume the supervisory duties, without the responsibility for down time. They wanted W U management to stand back and observe and, of course, accept responsibility for down time when it occurred.

It almost appears, from Don's story, they were experimenting with this AF proposal at McClellan during the year of 1966.

Note: McClellan closed on September 30, 1999

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Comments by Ron Ondracek:

Today 9/30/99 at 23:59:59Z (5:00 PM Local California time) the final statistics were taken, the standby processor was removed and the online CPU was "stopped" by command.

McClellan was a top contender for the least amount of error interrupts over the years. The ASC was switching over 100,000+ messages per day in the late 1960's.

The McClellan ASC has been passing traffic continuously (almost) for 38 years except for a three & one-half day outage when 120 Volts AC was accidentally shorted to the EMS UNIBUS. Other than that outage, the uptime was better than 99 percent.

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Editors note:

Refer to the Don Holtzclaw story above: Add a 16 hour outage that occurred in the Fall of 1967 when Base Group Command decided to cut-over the "new pole line" backup power piped from the P 55 Diesels to the power shed at the ASC. This was done while the ASC was cycling and without any notification to Western Union or the Civil Service operations chief. Needless to say, there were several "explosions" when Civil engineers threw the "big switch". A Motor Generator was knocked out and nearly all the diode packs in the core memory banks were blown and several rack power supplies were cooked. The cost to the US Government was approximately $125,000.

To Be Continued


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