Issue Date: August 30, 2004
Air Force underground
Missile field airmen spend up to 200 days in isolation but maintain 99 percent capability
By Nicole Gaudiano
Some will spend more than 200 days away from home each year, commuting thousands of miles on roads that are often unpaved or snow-covered. Some must maintain weapons from another era to near perfection, and others spend hour after hour, sometimes day after day, working in an underground capsule.
During the Reagan years, when the threat of mushroom clouds induced shivers and ABC’s film “The Day After” played on the nation’s worst nuclear nightmares, missile field airmen were in the news constantly.
Now, they think they’re all but forgotten — even though those airmen are busier than they’ve ever been.
Part of the reason for the surge is the threat of terrorism, which has stepped up security measures.
Other reasons involve some major movements in the field. Maintainers at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., the only base with Peacekeeper missiles, must complete the weapon’s deactivation by October 2005. And maintainers will spend at least the next six years upgrading the Minuteman missiles across the 20th Air Force, which also includes Minot and Malmstrom Air Force bases in North Dakota and Montana.
“The way I’ve characterized it is the highest ops tempo since we’ve put these things in the ground,” said Col. Evan J. Hoapili, commander of the 90th Space Wing at F.E. Warren.
“This isn’t the sexiest, [most] glamorous business,” Hoapili said. “People forget. They don’t think about how we’re providing top cover for people in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re really part of the fight.”
In this time of war, it may be difficult to think of time spent in the missile field as a deployment. But consider this: Every airman working combat, security or maintenance in the missile field is gone from home for at least 145 days. Deployments for missile combat crews, facility managers and, surprisingly, chefs are 190 days a year or more, and for some security forces, from 180 to 200 days.
Since 2002, maintenance projects increased the already long deployments for some security forces and maintainers. The days deployed per year have doubled for “camper teams” — they sleep in camper trucks while providing security for maintainers in the field — from 95 before October 2002 to 190 now.
“They’re not getting shot at and it’s not as nasty as sleeping in a tent,” said Col. John Faulkner, 20th Air Force vice commander. “They’re also not staying at home and watching ‘The Simpsons.’”
A trip to work for some can easily take up to three hours on a good day. The 9,600 people assigned to the 20th Air Force are deployed over vast territories — 23,000 square miles for Malmstrom — and collectively drive 19.7 million miles a year.
Without getting permission from a doctor, they can’t take extra-strength Tylenol after those long drives. It’s not part of the “Personal Reliability Program,” which governs all medications taken by anyone working near a nuclear missile. If those people take unapproved medication or if something is affecting their mental state, they aren’t allowed to work.
“For the majority, it’s a disgrace to come down off duty,” said Capt. Leeann Roberts, operations officer for the 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron at F.E. Warren.
Indeed, pride is part of their culture — and humor that’s perhaps on the warped side.
Lt. Col. L.B. Mobley, deputy commander of the 90th Maintenance Group at F.E. Warren, pulled back his BDU collar to reveal the picture on his T-shirt: a skeleton biting down on a Peacekeeper.
“Fighters and bombers are fun, but missiles are important,” he said.
Ever wonder what it’s like to work on the most powerful weapons systems in the world? Air Force Times spent three days with airmen from F.E. Warren’s missile fields, which stretch across Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. From the combat crew members in a launch control center, to security forces conducting an exercise and maintainers working in the launch facility (they hate the term “silos”), these are their stories.
An alarm starts the day
In a launch control center, a capsule 60 feet underground, crew members 1st Lt. Michele Gando and her deputy, 2nd Lt. Jason Whitman, had been on alert for about an hour when an alarm sounded. “Get behind the curtain,” Gando told two visitors, her voice immediately tense. It sounded like the alarm for an executive war order from the president.
But it was only a test, and so started what was to be a busy day.
From their capsule, the crew must coordinate all above-ground activity. On this day, that included security forces testing a system at one site and maintenance at others. Then, they got a call about another crew’s computer showing a fault with a missile — yet another situation that needed checking.
“I believe people have a misconception that all we do is sit here and watch TV,” Gando said.
From their green and beige capsule, sitting below the rancher-style Missile Alert Facility in Sydney, Neb., Gando and Whitman can monitor all 50 Minuteman missiles in their squadron.
A box with two gold combination locks holds two keys that, if turned in conjunction with another combat crew or an airborne asset, could launch nuclear missiles.
Gando has her name typed on her lock.
“I can remember my name so I don’t have to put it up there,” Whitman joked.
Whitman can talk all the trash he wants, but he’ll still have to spend at least the next 24 hours behind the capsule’s two eight-ton blast doors with Gando. The only privacy is in the bedroom — created by a curtain skirting the edges of a small bunk — in the airplane-sized bathroom, or in a space behind another curtain. Whitman can touch both sides of the capsule’s width with his fingers.
Missileers throughout 20th Air Force get used to 24-hour shifts turning into two or three days, often because of the weather. For instance, Gando and Whitman were late for work because a powerful gust of wind broke the door on their truck.
The wind is “omnipresent,” said 1st Lt. Kevin M. Ertmer, who was finally relieved of his shift 30 hours after leaving his house.
Living in a capsule for that long can make a person do things like sit-ups or study for a master’s degree — or even call the parents. “They say, ‘You must be on alert if you’re calling us,’” Ertmer said.
They also study together because training can be as tough as the weather. For emergency war order training, the passing score is a 90. If they score below that, they’re restricted and retrained. But if they score below 96.5, they still get additional training.
“There is a curve, and it’s a line,” said Col. Jack Weinstein, commander of the 90th Operations Group.
Missileers are asked repeatedly if they could, if ordered, launch a missile. And they sign a memo saying so. Ertmer takes comfort from the idea that it would take a huge string of events to force a launch.
“You realize if it comes to that, it’s OK,” he said.
Capt. Rachel Wells, now a flight commander, was a missileer getting ready for alert duty when the planes hit the towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was one of the few times I was nervous in the field,” she said. “You think about, ‘Wow, this is what my job is all about.’ “
Don’t cross the line
In a missile field, one never knows what may trip a launch facility alarm, or a “6 Echo.”
Airman 1st Class Eric Vincent, with the 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron, said he responded to a site near Greeley, Colo., in 2002. There, three protesting nuns wearing Tyvex protective suits cut through a fence, painted crosses on the silo with their own blood and beat on the launch facility’s lid with hammers.
They were removed from the site, and their hammers are now in a shadow box in the Security Forces building with a sign that reads, “Not just another 6 Echo.”
However, most alarms that keep security response teams scrambling are not actual threats. They’re caused by rabbits that trip sensor alarms or by snow that has piled up on a sensor. One time, a family of mice needed shooing, recalled Roberts, the operations officer. Meanwhile, if an alarm won’t reset, that could mean hours of uncomfortable waiting in the snow.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, helicopters have been assisting with random sweeps and accompanying security forces on responses. And troops are spending longer stints in the field protecting work sites and convoys.
But despite the emphasis on security, Roberts said, keeping troops motivated is her biggest challenge.
For instance, in Iraq, security forces see the enemy each day. But in the missile fields, “all these kids see is a block of cement and a fence line,” Roberts said.
“It’s a little bit harder when you don’t see the purpose every day,” she said. “You have to constantly remind them, ‘Your job is important. Your job is important.’”
Watching them conduct an exercise, an observer wouldn’t think they need reminding.
With grenades and illumination rounds tucked in his vest, Airman 1st Class Joshua Ramos was ready to “neutralize or illuminate.” Ramos sat behind the wheel of his Humvee, cracking his knuckles before it was time to head toward the Nebraska launch facility
On site, his partner, Senior Airman David Womack, 21, scampered up the access road toward the launch facility’s tall white sensor, checking culverts and ditches along the way.
After someone is on the other side of the facility’s fence, it’s a violation. They have a “use of force model” that covers verbal orders to use deadly force, based on the suspect’s actions. If a suspect struggles, for instance, they have “compliance techniques.”
“You’d say Uncle Airman,” Roberts said.
Missile field cops work 12-hour shifts, and spend 12 to 16 days a month deployed to the field. Some are only 18 years old.
Roberts calls them her “kids,” and she’s excited that they’ll soon be getting cameras on the sensors, so they’ll know ahead of time what’s tripping an alarm.
Roberts said she loves being a cop. She was a military police officer in the Army during Desert Storm. The Army made her a logistics officer after 11 years, and she left for Air Force police work.
“I bleed totally blue now,” she said. “But I draw from that experience to get through stuff here.”
One story that impresses the men of the missile field was Roberts’ response to a fellow officer who did not respect police work and wouldn’t step away when Roberts asked him to leave her personal space. One elbow to the chest, and he fell back on an uneven floor.
“She’s a folk hero,” said Weinstein, the 90th Operations Group Commander.
Roberts brings a whole lot of “hooah” to the missile field. This year, members of the 90th Security Forces Group, of which her squadron is a part, were the only 20th Air Force cops to get an “outstanding” compliance inspection rating from the Air Force Space Command’s inspector general’s office.
“Missile field cops are either outstanding or out-processing,” Roberts said.
For an eight-man team of Peacekeeper maintainers in a Wyoming launch facility, this was Day Three of working 20 feet below ground. Their mission for the day: to unscrew “Stage 3” for its removal from the second stage of a missile.
One maintainer cranked a speed wrench, shouting above the din, “Got your two.” No single person can work on the system, and workers must repeatedly confirm that someone else is there.
“You assume the worst, though obviously we trust all our people,” Mobley said.
Removing a Peacekeeper missile, which carries up to 10 nuclear warheads, takes about 17 days. To date, they’ve removed 32. They’ll have to remove 18 more before the October 2005 deadline set in the Moscow Treaty between the United States and Russia.
Maintainers of the 500 Minuteman nukes throughout the 20th Air Force are dealing with their own set of issues.
While F.E. Warren has reduced all of its Minuteman missiles from three warheads to one, the other bases are still reducing the warheads to one or two. At the same time, they all must upgrade those nukes to ensure their reliability through 2020. In some cases, that means replacing 1960s technology, including air conditioners.
“You get to a point where you can’t replace certain components,” Mobley said.
Mobley explained that there’s a culture in maintenance, one in which the maintainers ride the payload transport trucks in a local parade. “City of Kimball,” the truck says.
In this culture, it’s OK to call the missile handlers, whose jobs can be highly mechanical and routine, “knuckle draggers.” They like it. They’ve even got coins and posters depicting a growling gorilla holding a wrench.
But the jokes are over when it comes to the job. Alert rates have stayed above 98 percent throughout the 20th Air Force for the past four years.
Selling your favorite car
With a culture so attached to the mission, there’s mixed emotions about the Peacekeeper deactivation. Victor Ciccone, a civilian who has worked on the missiles since 1993, said, “It’s like having a favorite car and you sell it.”
Staff Sgt. Aron Avenell said, “I think it’s sad we’re getting rid of this stuff. It’s an excellent weapon system — the most modern, up-to-date one we have.”
Avenell, a munitions team chief, works in a munitions maintenance facility. The facility is so secret that public affairs asked Air Force Times to not publish its official name, but it’s where the weapons are modified and upgraded, and in the Peacekeeper’s case, removed.
On guard for any potential threat was security forces Sgt. Sidney Heinig, a crusty North Carolinian with a steely gaze and an M4 slung around his neck at all times, even when he sits at his computer.
Even if Heinig has just shared coffee with a technician, he’ll still arrest that airman for a procedures mistake.
Avenell has found himself in handcuffs on more than one occasion. Locking the warehouse door requires two people and a call to security forces.
“You mess up on the phone and you’re going to get arrested,” Avenell said. “I’ve been [arrested] numerous times.”
On the Peacekeeper side of that facility, technicians with top-secret clearances swarmed around the missile’s re-entry system, removing warheads one at a time. Airman 1st Class Robert Vuchetich guided the conical warhead as a hoist with a silver hook lifted it from the deployment module and moved it toward a pallet for shipping.
“A big mistake for us would be causing minute damage to a warhead,” said Tech. Sgt. Dave Bushee, a bay chief. “We’re not allowed to touch them with our bare hands, and if we do, we have 30 minutes to clean it.”
Once these warheads are sent away, 600 Peacekeeper workers will be retrained, reassigned or removed through attrition.
“In the big picture, this is a very good thing,” said Senior Airman Sarah Chapman, a munitions technician.
Although her job will end, Chapman’s happy to have worked on the Peacekeeper for the past two years.
“No one will ever be able to do this again,” she said. “This will go down — I think that’s the coolest part. When it’s finished, we’ll see it through.”
It's probably not the best life, but they're doing an important thing for their country.
In Russia their counterparts are probably underground twirling their skeleton keys, drinking vodka, playing cards, thinking about loose women and wondering if they'll ever get paid. Scary.
They really need a pay raise. Hell we need to take some money from Admin jobs and give it down to the people who work.
It's not a job I'd want...
Well if the AF recruited girls from Hooters and put me underground with them I'll take the job. Oh yeah make them also recruit from strip clubs.
I hate hearing that we are losing so many nuclear warheads.
A good friend and co-worker retired from the AF just after the Gulf War. He was an E-8 doing security out of Rapid City. He had many neat stories from his years as a cop.
Like: As a single stripe Airman, in the Wichita area IIRC, there was a Col. who would fly them out to their site, in a Huey, on occasion. This Col. was rather cool. My friend would often get to fly the bird. But he wasn't taught, or tried, to take off and land the thing tough.
Or the time when he was a buck sgt. and the Capt, I think it was, in the underground center taught my friend how to run through the launch sequence. Right up to blowing the lid off, but it takes two keys to launch. I'm thinking this is normally an officer's role. Many times the Capt. would have my friend do a check when there was a new lieutenant on duty. Boredom is a rather frequent companion.
Yep, he has many interesting and cool stories. He transfered to another shift and I really miss working with him.
Oh big deal - I'll take 200 days (with breaks) underground anytime over 60+ days underwater (straight) in a steel tube being hunted continuosly by surface and subsurface killers.
Aw, that's nothing. Half the guys on ARFcom act like this at home.
Got to love the bullshit stories trying to make it seem something it's not.
Lots and lots of lies and 1/2 truths in the above story.
Hell, even the PRP story is crap as extra-strength Tylenol is one of the few self assisted meds you can take when on PRP.
I'm retired USAF Security Forces & spent 6 years at Minot guarding the missiles & then 4 years at F.E. Warren doing the exact same crap till I punched in 2002.
I call bullshit on the stories. Cops NEVER ride up front in a chopper & do NOT have access to the launch console even with an cone head standing over their shoulder. If either story really happened both the airman & the officer would be in jail.
Could very well be. I wasn't there.
But they make great stories.
I have seen plenty of people take a seat behind the controls of military aircraft who are not pilots and who are not even in the military.
Probably just the latter two
The other half have AKs.
Cool article. Thanks for posting it. I have always been curious about nuclear missle stuff. I work with quite a few prior service guys, most from aviation but there are a few former submariners and Air Force types that had obscure technical jobs. One dude I was on a crew with was a missle guy in N. Dakota. He would tell some pretty cool stories. Stuff that I won't relate on an open forum, but some things would make me say holy shit.
BTW... I too have seen plenty of non pilot and non military people behind the controls of military aircraft. I've performed more than one unofficial approach myself...
I'm sure you have. But after spending 10 years in 2 different missile complex's and putting in quite a few hours flying in slicks with both single pilots & dual pilots I can say without a doubt no cop has ever sat up front on a mission. Not to mention the gymnastics involved moving from the back to the front of a huey in flight, that's just plain stupid.