That's me on the right, as seen on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat on Sunday, August 4, 1985. (click to see a larger photo)
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I had read about Arkansas' Titan II ICBM silos following the 1980 accident at a launch complex near Damascus, Arkansas, where an explosion blew the 740-ton blast door off the top of the underground complex, ejected the rocket's second stage and threw the nuclear warhead 600 feet against the outer fence. Getting into one of those silos was tops on my wish list when I moved to Little Rock in 1982 to take a news reporter job. The television station where I worked claimed to have the only footage from the explosion, very shaky video of a burning fire in the distance. Television crews were kept a mile away from the scene because of leaking fuel from the rocket that included highly toxic and corrosive hydrazine. When the silo exploded, our video crew shot maybe 15 second of footage, threw everything into the back of the van and beat a hasty retreat right through a nearby wooden gate.
The remaining seventeen Titan II launch sites were decommissioned and demolished between 1985 and 1987, with the missiles being removed and used to launch satellites. I got my wish goal and then some. By my recollection, I visited Titan II silos on six occasions during those years:
- A fully operational site on combat alert. They made me take out my contact lenses before entering on the very remote chance we would encounter propellant fumes which I was told, would melt my contacts to my corneas. I couldn't see squat, but hey, no problem. The Missile Combat Crew Commander (MCCC) told us we would need to leave the control center immediately if there were incoming messages over the radio system. At one point, the radio barked to life. The MCCC and his partner shouted at us to get into the outer tunnel. Something for the tourists? Years later, in Missouri, when I was halfway down a Minuteman II silo in a dangling basket, they killed the lights and blew the klaxon to see what I would do. Very funny, guys. I've been in one of these before, y'know.
- Site 374-8 south of Quitman, Arkansas to observe preparations for offloading the Titan's propellant and oxidizer.
- With the local Amateur Radio club to remove radio transmitters and coax for the local Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) group at Little Rock Air Force Base. So there I was, in the launch control center of a missile silo, tearing into very expensive hardline with a hacksaw.
- A media tour at site 373-6 about 5 miles north of Beebe, Arkansas in August 1985, which featured a missile, minus warhead still in the launch duct. It was here I discovered the Titan's aluminum skin wasn't much more than a quarter-inch thick in places. As I recorded a narrative for a radio piece I was doing, I rapped my knuckles on the side of the rocket to let my audience hear the ringing metal sound of the empty tank.
- A trip to an empty silo, where we descended the ladder adjacent to the launch duct the entire 100-plus feet to the bottom. The descent was broken up by the floor plates on eight levels, each one of which had a hatch that covered the ladder way. I got to see the W-shaped concrete blast deflector below where the rocket stood, which would have diverted flame and exhaust from the two engines into vents on either side as the rocket is launched. The dehumidifier system that typically kept the launch duct dry was no longer working and there was an odor of mildew.
- Demolition day, where the silo was dynamited. A blanket of nets and old tires covered the top to minimize flying debris and keep rubble in the silo.
The fifty-four Titan II launch control sites built in Arkansas, Kansas and Arizona during 1960 and 1961, became active in 1963 and stood on alert for more than twenty years. Eighteen missiles each were assigned to Little Rock AFB, Arkansas; McConnell AFB, Kansas, and; Davis-Monthan AFB Arizona. Arkansas' Titans were the last to be deactivated. The retirement of Titan II represented the end of ICBMs that use liquid propellants. Today, aerial imagery shows few traces of the missile launch sites that once existed in the hills of Arkansas. For those of us who love the intrigue of secret underground doomsday complexes, there is still the opportunity to visit the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona, just off I-19 about 25 miles south of Tucson, and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota.