BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. – High atop Apple Orchard Mountain, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, sits a tower that looks like a huge golf ball, all teed up and ready to be struck off into what must be a certain landing in the rough.
It rises above the highest point along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.
Footage from the 10 News archives tells some of the story. It’s the tale of what was once the 649th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, an Air Force base on top of the mountain. It was home to as many as 200 troops at one time. During the Cold War, it was part of the nation’s early-warning system.
At one time, there were three of those “golf balls” on the side of the mountain, (see photo below) along with barracks and support systems for the small base.
“So the Air Force Base was really great to have this close to town,” said Jennifer Thomson with the Bedford Museum, who has gathered clippings about the facility over the years. “It was anything you would find at a military base, just smaller,” Thomson said.
The base, officially known as Bedford Air Force Station offered a two-lane bowling alley and other amenities to keep the men entertained, but accounts from those stationed there indicate it was boring atop the mountain, so they went to town whenever they could, much to the delight of local women, according to Thomson.
“The story is that if it wasn't for the Air Force base, a lot of the local women wouldn't be married today,” she said.
The public was fascinated with the technology, and 10 News archival footage shows tours being given – complete with a Coca-Cola stand.
In 1975, the Air Force withdrew from the installation and handed full control to the Federal Aviation Administration, which still operates it today. Though the public may have been welcome during the Cold War, that is not the case today. The road from the Parkway to the facility is closed to the public, and the FAA denied our request for a tour.
But, it turns out there is a well-known back entrance, called the Appalachian Trail.
It’s about a 2-mile hike up a steep incline, over some rocky terrain. Near the top, a gnarly growth of trees looks like something from the enchanted forest.
But a few steps more and visitors will see the “golf ball.”
The trail passes right by the tower, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Keegan MacDonnell, a through hiker from Indiana, was eating his lunch and drying his hiking boots only 25 feet from the base of the facility. He said he knew he was about to come upon some sort of tower thanks to a hiker’s guidebook.
“Not too surprised,” he said, eating some beef jerky and trail mix. “We have a little guide that tells us what's coming ahead on the trail.” MacDonnell said the tower was interesting and didn’t detract from his backwoods experience.
Aside from MacDonnell, there appeared to be no one else there.
The FAA says today the installation is a long-range radar tower, tracking commercial air traffic for hundreds of miles. The “golf ball” dome covers the rotating radar unit to protect it from high winds that buffet the mountain.
Long gone are the barracks and other buildings that for 20 years housed the mountain’s mini Air Force base.
All that remains is that big ball and a couple of small buildings, seen from afar by people all over our region, or by those willing to take a rigorous hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Note: After the story aired and appeared on WSLS.com we received the following clarification from Tom Page, Historian for the Online Air-Defense Radar Museum.
It should be noted that the FAA's radar tower atop Apple Orchard Mountain today is not one of the original Air Force radar towers that were there from 1955 until 1975. Also, the FAA actually maintained and operated the Air Force's search radar beginning in 1960. So, when the Air Force closed Bedford Air Force Station in 1975, the FAA remained there (not took over per se). Finally, one piece of the old AF Station remains today: the 27-unit family housing annex off highway 43 still stands right outside of town. For more historical information about the 649th Radar Squadron and Bedford AFS, see https://www.radomes.org/museum/showsite.php?site=Bedford+AFS%2C+VA&squadron=&country=.
Thank you to Tom for the additional information. Tom asks that if anyone has historic photos or other stories or artifacts from the time at the base to please contact him so that the materials may be included in the online museum. If you would like to contact him, please reach out to him here:
There are many photos of the site available here, courtesy of the National Air Defense Radar Museum, which is under construction. Thanks to Gene McManus and www.radomes.org for assistance with the story. There are many more facts, images and details on the organization’s website.
Some of the 10 News archival clips can be seen here: