December 19, 2020

Spectral Geography: Boeing's Montana Playground

Using data on experimental radio tests, we found a partially abandoned Cold War town shared by one of the world's largest defense contractors and a small enclave of anti-government radicals.

Spectral Geography: Boeing's Montana Playground

The vast expanse of the United States offers many quiet, discrete places to pursue secretive or unusual ventures. The nation's defense contractors have long sought to find such places to experiment away from the prying eyes of competitors and potential spies. Isolation serves other needs, too. Tests often pose hazards in the form of electromagnetic radiation, pollution or excessive noise. The seclusion attract others in search of extreme privacy, too.

In this piece, we'll explore one such place: St. Marie, Montana. There, one of the world's largest defense contractors shares a partially abandoned Cold War-era town with a small enclave of anti-government radicals. Both have come to the area for its physical and social isolation. In town, secretive and sometimes dangerous tests are conducted at a former Air Force base. Meanwhile, residents fear a potential invasion from a small but wealthy group with extreme political ideas. Just outside of town, sophisticated drones are being tested that can survey the region's expansive but decaying railroad infrastructure.

This puzzling place is an example of an obscure American geography that is difficult to map. Since Freedom of Information Act laws do not pertain to corporations, there are few public mechanisms to uncover details about places like St. Marie. However, there is one key and neglected source: arcane records kept by the Federal Communications Commission. These records exist to ensure that experiments involving radio transmitters do not interfere with existing infrastructure.

Mapping the experimental use of the electromagnetic spectrum provides vital clues to the technological landscape that are otherwise intentionally obscure. In an effort to make these records easier to access, MeasureCongress created a geographic search engine for locating experimental FCC records. The tool also allows us to search the United States for isolated pockets of intense radio spectrum experimentation. We plan to run a series of pieces profiling these places in a series titled Spectral Geography. First up: St. Marie, Montana.

The town was once the site of Glasgow Air Force Base, boasting one of the few runways long enough for the now defunct Space Shuttle to land. The base operated strategic bombers at the height of the Cold War, only to be decommissioned in 1976. The area saw a dramatic loss of population after the facility closed. The nearby city of Glasgow is estimated to have lost nearly half of its population. In 2010, the Census counted just 264 residents in St. Marie. Today, the town has under five hundred residents based on recent Census estimates.

Satellite images show a town dominated by a massive runway. A small number of aging homes and structures are close to the southwestern portion of the base. The town has a large number of condo units, originally designed to house military personnel. It also contains a church, a high school, a bowling alley, and the remnants of an officers club.

Credit: GoogleEarth 

Safety and Defense Testing

After the base was abandoned, it was eventually purchased by defense contractor and aerospace giant Boeing. NBC-affiliate King5 reported that Boeing has repurposed the base as a test bed for aviation safety technology under its subsidiary company, the Montana Aviation Research Company (MARCo). Airfield manager Darcell Wesen told King5 that the isolation of the area makes it ideal for noise testing because it is so quiet.

However, our review of FCC records reflected a greater range of testing in the area beyond just aviation safety. We found at least eight experimental applications to FCC in the small town or its immediate environs. Often the easiest way to find details on these applications is to search for them in the FCC license database by radio call sign. Here are the call signs we located:

License Callsign Company Application
KK2XBU Boeing Safety testing of induced lightening and High Intensity Radiated Fields
WA2XXO Boeing GPS testing
KF2XJK Boeing Testing of planed-based telephone system
WC2XYI Boeing Testing of traffic alert/collision avoidance system
WF2XST Boeing Secret; likely involved flight testing of wideband, long-range networked radio system
WG2XOQ Boeing Testing of Maritime Surveillance Aircraft
WC9XNY Qualcom Testing of aircraft shielding against radiofrequencies
WJ2XFZ BNSF Railway Drone testing for railroad monitoring

Collision avoidance systems were indeed tested there – but as only one part of a wider portfolio. It appears that the facility was used for testing the resilience of air craft to high energy fields and induced lightening the 1990s. One denied application described how "high intensity radiated field" testing was conducted in the area in the past. The company filed an application to the FCC out of the concern that the testing set up could accidentally create radio frequency interference. One exhibit from the application of call sign KK2XBU is reproduced below:


In addition to safety related applications, Boeing's Maritime Surveillance Aircraft appears to have been tested at the facility as well. A separate project, under call sign WF2XST, was subject to multiple confidentiality requests. Internal FCC metadata had one small note on the purpose: "Testing of sealancet Radio systems."

Boeing Maritime Surveillance Aircraft. Credit: Boeing

The "sealancet Radio system" appears to refer to the SeaLancet tactical radio, a product of the Harris Corporation:

SeaLancet was designed to communicate high-volume sensor data from multiple Navy platforms to distant tactical ships, such as the LCS. Applications include anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, anti-surface warfare, maritime interdiction, ship-to-ship communications, and wireless pier capability. The highly ruggedized radio can survive submersion in water up to 1 meter and operate at high altitudes. –,-long_range-maritime-radio.html

The Montana facility was removed from the list of test locations in 2018. However, during its operational period flights of up to 370 miles from the base were authorized.

In recent years, the area has also been home to extensive drone testing. A joint program between BNSF Railway and Boeing has operated in the region. FCC records helped us locate a string of truly remote broadcast station in rural Montana, in the area around St. Marie:

Credit: Google Earth

The remote ground station is used to help coordinate drone traffic designed to help railroad operators locate infrastructure problems from the sky. The ScanEagle drone, capable of flying for 24 hours at a time at a speed of 90 miles an hour, tirelessly scans miles of railroad tracks.

Credit: Google Earth

The subject of unmanned drones used for infrastructure monitoring has attracted national attention, most recently in a 2015 Senate hearing focused on drone safety. In the hearing, Michael Huerta of the Federal Aviation Administration cited the BNSF program as an important experiment in "drone command and control" systems.

Boeing's New Neighbors: 'Sovereign Citizens'

The isolation of St. Marie has become attractive to more than just defense contractors and railroad companies. The Southern Poverty Law Center profiled the town after a group of "sovereign citizens" purchased nearly 400 properties there.

The ordeal started when three men arrived in the town, apparently prospecting for cheap property to house oil workers flocking to the nearby North Dakota Bakken Shale Formation. The men represented a Washington state company called DTM Enterprises. They swiftly paid $187,086.43 in unpaid taxes in order to acquire a large number of condo units.

Things took a strange turn when it was discovered that the men are associated with the "sovereign citizen" movement – a group with a complex ideology that often claims that federal law does not apply to them. Among their beliefs are that "sovereigns" are not required to obtain driver's licenses or pay federal taxes. Not long after their arrival, strange signs started appearing in the town:

Southern Poverty Law Center: "Fear and Loathing in Montana"

One of the men, Terry Lee Brauner, has a notably complex background. In the 1990s, he fought the IRS over a million dollar tax debt. In 2010, he launched an unsuccessful bid to become a sheriff in Washington. In St. Marie, he would spend two weeks in jail and pay fines for driving a car without a license or insurance. He told authorities at the time that he would not obtain a license because the form required him to answer yes to the question "Are you a U.S. citizen?"

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported this about the episode, offering some insight into Brauner:

In 2013, before his traffic arrest, according to the Glasgow (Mont.) Courier, Brauner sent a 25-page “memorandum of law” to officials explaining why he didn’t need a driver’s license. According to the Courier, he also “provided legal education on topics such as personal liberty, travel, distinctions between the terms ‘driver’ and ‘operator,’ licenses, traffic, surrender of rights and taxing power.” Brauner described himself as a “Citizen of the Republic of Montana” as opposed to the “municipal corporate State of MONTANA,” typical sovereign verbiage. His affidavit, the paper reported, referred to himself at the end as “Terry-Lee, a sovereign being.”
Credit: The Glasgow Courier 

According to Brauner, he is not attempting to create a "sovereign" enclave in St. Marie. He told the Southern Poverty Law Center:

“We come in there as businessmen, just regular, ordinary businessmen, with a million dollars in our pocket,” he said. “We assumed that the oil boom was going to come all the way over. It got within 50 miles of [St. Marie] and stopped.”

Other residents continue to be concerned that the area could attract others from the "sovereign" movement, or perhaps other extremist groups.

Credit: The Glasgow Courier

The Glasgow Courier ran a short piece with a photo of the three men from DTM Enterprises: Terry Lee Brauner, Merrill Frantz and Ron Frantz. In 2016, Ron Frantz and Merrill Frantz published an 84-page guide titled "Freedom to Worship: How to Guard Your Constitutional Rights from Infringement by Governmental Agencies."

Credit: "Freedom To Worship" Facebook Page

The book claims to guide churches seeking to "preach the truth without fear of government censorship or reprisal." An excerpt of the introduction is provided below:

Mapping the Geography of Experimental Testing

St. Marie is largely a product of federal intervention. Originally, the Glasgow Air Force Base drew thousands to the area. The remnants of its physical infrastructure keep Boeing and its corporate subsidiaries there today. As shown by FCC records, the facility has attracted a mixture of dangerous and secretive activity over decades. It is remarkable that a place so heavily defined by the federal government also attracted the interest of a group so deeply opposed to it.

Our Spectral Geography series will continue to use computational methods to map places like St. Marie, and to document their stories – technological and social alike.