The view from my perch on the mountain

Rocket’s roots

NOTE: The following is a re-post from my old Windows Live Spaces page. Some of you have already read this but I’ve posted it for those who are new followers here.

For those of you who are curious about the “roketman” portion of my url it’s as close as I could get to Rocket Man, the screen name I used for a year and a half on Windows Live Spaces and currently use on my Blogger page. This blog will explain why I chose that name.

me  at 19

Back in the early 70s I really was a rocket man. During my first hitch in the US Air Force, in the early 70’s, I was a Missile Facilities Technician assigned to a 4 man Missile Combat Crew in a Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base (AFB). We were the men who pulled 24 hour alert tours 8 to 10 times a month in the 18 missile silos scattered across central Arkansas. That’s right; the Looney Toon y’all know as Rocket Man was one of the people who would have launched a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union if a valid launch order was ever issued by the National Command Authority.

I guess I should add a disclaimer here just to prevent my fellow veterans having cardiac arrests because I’m posting classified information in a blog. All of the following information and much, much more is readily available online. This weapons system was retired in 1987 and all the silos, but one ,were imploded to satisfy terms of the Salt II treaty. The one complex that was not destroyed is now the Titan II Museum in Green Valley, Arizona. It is open to guided tours and more information about the museum can be found here.


The diagram above shows the layout of a typical Titan II complex with the silo itself on the right, The silo was shaped like a large donut with 9 levels, The hole in the center was the launch duct containing the missile and hydraulic work platforms which could be lowered to perform maintenance on the bird. The rings on each level held support equipment including air conditioning systems, hydraulic and pneudraulic pumps, a diesel generator, elevator and various other equipment.

The structure in the middle of the diagram is the access portal which served as secure access to the underground complex. In addition to the 3 flights of stairs, with electrically operated doors controlled by the crew on duty, there was also closed circuit TV cameras, an elevator and four 8-ton interlocked blast doors. These doors could only be opened one at a time and protected the crew from surface blasts in case of attack as well as secure access to the launch duct and control center. The duty crew had electronic control over the interlocks and if they didn’t want you to get in, you didn’t.

The bullet shaped structure on the left is the control center, a three story structure containing sleeping quarters, kitchen and full bath on the top level, system monitoring, communication and launch consoles on the second level and emergency battery power, stable power supply generators, radio and other equipment including a 90 day supply of survival rations and water for the 4 man crew. All of these structures were hardened in case of attack and could probably have survived a near direct hit with a medium sized nuclear weapon.


The shot above left shows the layout of a typical complex. As you can see, very little equipment is located above ground, in keeping with the hardened complex protocol. The large structure in the center is the silo closure door.


This 740 ton slab sat on railroad tracks directly over the silo itself and was intended to protect the missile located just below it. During the launch sequence hydraulic motors were used to roll this door aside.

The color quality in the close up photo on the right isn’t the best because that door was actually painted  “sandstone pink” as were the doors on all 54 silos. The first squadron went active in Arizona (the location of this shot) and the pink shade was intended to act as camouflage. The shade of paint became military standard or “milspec” for the silo closure doors on all Titan II sites.This may have been a good idea for the 18 complexes attached to Davis-Monthan AFB in the Arizona desert but the doors on the 18 complexes in the corn fields around McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas and the 18 scattered in the woods and farm fields around Little Rock AFB, Arkansas stuck out like a sore thumb from the air.


The missile itself, or The Bird as we called it, was a 2 stage, inertially guided, liquid fuel rocket which was used as he booster for the NASA 2 man Gemini space program before NASA moved to the more powerful Saturn V booster vehicle for the Apollo moon missions. The fuel, unsymetricaldimethylhydrazine (UDMH)  and oxidizer, nitrogen tetraoxide, were hypergolic meaning they exploded on contact so no ignition source was needed other than the start cartridges which initiated the fuel and oxidizer turbines used to pump the components into the thrust chambers on the base of each stage. Each stage held fuel and oxidizer tanks to supply the two engines on stage one and single stage two engine. The stage one engines and thrust chambers can be seen firing in the photo above which was taken during an unarmed test launch from Charley Site at Vandenberg AFB, California.  The ICBM version had a range in excess of 7,000 miles and carried the largest weapon ever fielded by the United States.

All of these birds were targeted on the old Soviet Union and were basically massive antipersonnel weapons intended to take out “soft” military targets as well as population centers. One instructor brought the mission of these weapons to stark clarity when he referred to them as “city killers”. Under the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine our mission was to provide a deterrent force against the Soviet Union. Our purpose was to assure the Soviets that any strike launched against the United States would result in overwhelming retaliation that would most likely result in the end of life as we know it.


Instead of a capsule used to carry astronauts into space the Titan II ICBM was topped with a re-entry vehicle or RV in our terminology. All United States land based missiles, Titan II and Minuteman, were ballistic meaning they were to be fired over the North Pole in the boost phase, and would re-enter the atmosphere during the ballistic, or unpowered phase of their trajectory. The RV, pictured above, is actually made of an “ablative shield” intended to protect the weapon during the heat of re-entering the atmosphere over the target. This shield, made of layer upon layer chemically impregnated cork would flake away after reaching a specific temperature during re-entry exposing the layer below to begin heating before flaking away and exposing the next layer. Long before the final layer burned away the RV would be low enough in the atmosphere for the entire shield assembly to be jettisoned.


Housed inside the RV was the weapon also known as the fission package or the device. The ordinance bus on the Titan II carried a W-53 Thermonuclear package (above) with a yield of 9 megatons which is equivalent to the explosion produced by 9 million tons of TNT. To give you an idea of just how large that explosive force is, The weapons used against Hiroshima ( code named Little Boy) and Nagasaki (Fat man) at the end of World War II had yields of 15 kilotons and 21 kilotons, respectively. The W-53 yield was 600 time the size of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima and killed or injured 135,000 people.

I have heard it said that those of us who were charged with protecting these weapons and standing by to use them if necessary won the Cold War. I don’t know about that but every day I thank God we never had to use these weapons.

After leaving the USAF in 1976 I spent 2 years as a long haired beach bum but missed the service enough that I cut my hair and enlisted in the Air Force reserve where I served in a Special Operations unit for nearly 10 years but that’s a whole ‘nother blog.


The Titan II ICBM Page


Titan II Museum

The 308th Strategic Missile Wing (My old unit. I served in both operational squadrons, the 373rd & 374th Strategic Missile Squadrons.)

The Strategic Air Command

The Association of Air Force Missileers

The High Energy Weapons Archive


4 responses

  1. penelopephoebe

    Wow, scary stuff! Cute uniform though.

    July 19, 2010 at 12:52 PM

  2. You sure were a skinny runt! 😉

    July 19, 2010 at 3:32 PM

    • roketman

      Yeah, I was always pretty skinny but losing 28 lbs in 10 days, thanks to a case of mumps, didn’t help either. This shot was taken the day before I started Missile Upgrade Training in May. I packed it back on and had to have new crew blues issued in October after I split the seams on one of my shirts.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:06 PM

  3. Fascinating … thanks for sharing this …

    July 19, 2010 at 4:50 PM

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