The Secret History of Eastern Choctawhatchee Bay

Sep 10, 2023Beach Life Magazine, Emerald Coast, Travel

There’s an odd cluster of pilings on the eastern edge of the Choctawhatchee Bay. Ever noticed them when driving north across the bridge? These aren’t the remains of an ill-fated attempt at a bridge, but are part of a system capable of detecting low-flying aircraft during the early years of the Cold War when computer technology was in its infancy.

Let’s back up a bit: After WWII, the United States learned that the Soviet Union had successfully developed a nuclear bomb and aircraft capable of carrying out a nuclear attack against the United States. A strong national air defense system did not exist—so the race to create one began.

A critical weakness in our air defense was the ability to detect low-flying aircraft in real-time. And in 1950, a computer capable of interpreting data in real-time did not exist—which is where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) enters the conversation.

Professor Jay Forrester was already working with a group at MIT to develop the world’s first real-time computer. After a successful demonstration, Project Lincoln and the Lincoln Laboratory were created to study air defense systems for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. But since Forrester’s computer used storage tubes for internal memory, the data was unreliable. A better memory system was critical. So, Forrester and his team successfully developed the magnetic-core memory system—which spawned modern computing as we know it.

Now that computers could analyze and interpret data in real-time, air-to-ground radar testing began. In 1959, Eglin Air Force installed 2,040 pilings topped with omnidirectional radar corner reflectors in the eastern corner of the Choctawhatchee Bay. Dubbed “Test Area D-55,” the Air Force would send and receive radar to these pilings (arranged in 25 different sections) to test the accuracy of the real-time data analysis.


It must have been an odd sight.

Years passed, and the Air Force seemed to have abandoned the area. Locals began pilfering the aluminum “bowls” from atop the pilings to sell for scrap (or use as odd garden ornaments).

Two Walton County locals, Andy Coleman and Freddy Bishop, even got in a bit of trouble over the reflectors.

“Now, I had called Eglin before to get permission to remove them,” Coleman explained. “I was never able to speak to anyone, so we just decided we’d go out there to get them. Turned out the Air Force didn’t like that.”

After being questioned by authorities, Coleman said he was released because he could prove he had contacted the Air Force in advance. His friend, however, was not as fortunate and faced charges.

In 1993, Eglin confirmed the site was inactive: “Most of the reflectors are reported missing, with the pilings remaining on-site. The pilings are clearly marked on navigation charts. The pilings have not been removed due to the potential environmental impact on water quality from the creosote.”

Nowadays, the only thing those skinny, creosote-treated pilings support are the occasional double-crested cormorant, pelican, or seagull in need of a perch. As you drive across the 331 bridge, probably assisted by a GPS system on a smartphone, take a moment to appreciate the technology race that led to those decaying old pilings, and let that echo of the past be an inspiration for what’s possible.

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