Military installations off the beaten path

By Staff Sgt. Antonio Gonzalez
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

When you sign up to join the Air Force, you’re not only agreeing to put service before self, but also to put location before self. Sometimes you’ll find yourself stationed far away from friends and family. On other occasions, you’ll receive orders to serve at  remote locations for one year or more. While some remote bases are relatively close to civilization, these four military installations are located in the some of the most obscure areas in the world.

1. Thule Air Base, Greenland

Ceremonial Guardsmen from the Top of the World Honor Guard present the American, Canadian, Danish and Greenlandic flags prior to the Memorial Day Array-to-the-Bay Relay Run hosted by the 12th Space Warning Squadron here May 25. The run was held to honor Airman 1st Class Matthew Seidler and Capt. David Lyon, two fallen service members from the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. (Courtesy photo by Torben Bjerre/Released)
Ceremonial Guardsmen from the Top of the World Honor Guard present the American, Canadian, Danish and Greenlandic flags prior to the Memorial Day Array-to-the-Bay Relay Run. The run was held to honor Airman 1st Class Matthew Seidler and Capt. David Lyon, two fallen service members from the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. (Courtesy photo by Torben Bjerre/Released)

Located 947 miles from the North Pole, Thule AB, Greenland is the Air Force’s northernmost installation. Contrary to popular belief, Thule AB is still operational, and is home to the 21st Space Wing’s global network of sensors providing missile warning, space surveillance and space control to North American Aerospace Defense Command and Air Force Space Command.

In Latin, “Thule” means “northernmost part of the habitable world,” and the base is locked in by ice nine months out of the year. Each summer, an Icebreaker ship pushes through the ice in the North Star Bay to clear a path for American, Canadian and Danish cargo ships. This marks the opening of a very short port season where ships bring in the installation’s annual bulk resupply of fuel, food, cargo and construction material. The bay will be frozen again by mid-October, isolating the installation once again to air or dogsled access only.

There is no local town outside of Thule Air Base. The closest village, Qaanaaq, is located 65 miles away, so in actuality, there is no “off-base” except for the bay, the ice cap and what appears to be thousands of miles of rocks and ice.

A polar bear prowls Thule Air Base Sept. 14, 2011. Bears are not an uncommon sight at Thule, located 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, as they dominate their high ground foraging for food. The air base has a warning system in place to alert residents if a bear is nearby, as well as tools to discourage the bears from venturing onto base. Thule Air Base is one of the six installations operated by the 21st Space Wing. (Courtesy photo by Danish Chief Petty Officer Lars Iversen/Released)
A polar bear prowls Thule AB, Greenland, Sept. 14, 2011. Bears are not an uncommon sight at Thule as they dominate their high ground foraging for food. The air base has a warning system in place to alert residents if a bear is nearby, as well as tools to discourage the bears from venturing onto base. (Courtesy photo by Danish Chief Petty Officer Lars Iversen/Released)

Things to do at Thule Air Base include golfing (they have a fairly rough 9-hole course), staying in shape (they have a gym and no major fast food outlets) and participating in outdoor sports like mountain biking, skiing and snowboarding. You can even take a boat ride to see polar bears.

2. Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory

A B-1B Lancer accelerates for take off (background), on Diego Garcia, November 2001,  during Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rebeca M. Luquin/Released)
A B-1B Lancer accelerates to take off at Diego Garcia,  during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rebeca M. Luquin/Released)

This lush, tropical paradise is located seven degrees south of the equator in the Indian Ocean. It is the largest of more than 60 islands that make up the Chagos Archipelago. Diego Garcia takes on the rough outline of a footprint on the ocean surface giving it the nickname “Footprint of Freedom.”

Diego Garcia takes on the rough outline of a footprint on the ocean surface giving it the nickname “Footprint of Freedom.” Courtesy photo/Released)
Diego Garcia takes on the rough outline of a footprint on the ocean surface giving it the nickname “Footprint of Freedom.” Courtesy photo/Released)

Diego Garcia’s mission is to support U.S. and allied forces that are forward deployed to the Indian Ocean. The base also  supports multi-theater forces operating in the U.S. Central Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. European Command, and U.S. Pacific Command areas of responsibilities in support of overseas contingency operations.

Since Diego Garcia is in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed compared to the U.S. and they change very little with year-round temperatures in the high 80s during the day and low 70s at night. It rains about 100 inches during a normal year with most of the rainfall occurring during the summer months of December and January.

Airmen and Sailors stationed at Diego Garcia showcase their catch after a deep sea fishing expedition. (Courtesy photo/Released)
Airmen and Sailors stationed at Diego Garcia showcase their catch after a deep sea fishing expedition. (Courtesy photo/Released)

Popular activities at Diego Garcia include fishing and water sports. Whether it is trolling for Yellowfin Tuna to bottom fishing for Red Snapper, you probably won’t find a better place to fish and snorkel in the world. You can also rent powerboats, sailboats, canoes, windsurfers and kayaks from the marina, and free classes are offered on a regular basis.

3. Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, Northern Territory, Australia

Radomes at Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, Northern Territory, Australia. (Courtesy Photo)
Radomes at Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, Northern Territory, Australia. (Courtesy photo)

Pine Gap is a joint Australian-U.S. intelligence facility located smack dab in the middle of Australia. Originally established by the United States in 1966 (becoming operational by 1970), the original purpose of Pine Gap was to collect information on the testing of Soviet missiles. Now, Pine Gap’s main mission is to monitor any missile activity in the region and relay intelligence to U.S. and Australian forces.

The Alice Springs welcome sign. (Courtesy photo/Released)
The Alice Springs welcome sign. (Courtesy photo)

While this duty station is located in the middle of a desert, and experiences long dry summers with occasional rainstorms, there is a town called Alice Springs to give base members some entertainment and recreation options. Available activities include an 18-hole golf course, public tennis courts and an outdoor swimming center. There’s also a Cultural Precinct highlighting natural history of the region. People learn about the Aboriginal culture, and the more recent European settlement as well as enjoy shopping and the local cinema.

4. Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal

An aerial view of Lajes Field, Azorez, Portugal. (Courtesy photo/Released)
An aerial view of Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal. (Courtesy photo/Released)

Located on a small chunk of volcanic rock in the Atlantic Ocean, Lajes Field is one of the most important refueling stations in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s home to the 65th Air Base Wing, and enables the expeditionary movement of warfighters, warplanes and global communications aircraft to combatant commanders, supports joint, coalition, and NATO operations and promotes regional partnerships.

Since its discovery in the early 15th century, the Portuguese Azores have played an important part in oceanic navigation. The Azores were a logistical point for the discovery of new worlds, and proved to be a gem in the Atlantic during the early days of aviation. As aircraft technology improved, it was not long before aviators began to look across the great oceans as an obtainable goal. The Azores is located 900 miles from the coast of Portugal and 2,000 miles from America, and it’s an ideal strategic stopover and refueling point for American Forces.

Activities people can take part in during their assignment to Lajes Field include visiting the beaches, camping, hiking, fishing, scuba diving, sightseeing, nature walks and enjoying the local culture.

Now that you’ve seen a few of our top picks for remote bases, tell us about some of the best remote assignments you’ve had during your military career!