The Powder Tampers of the Launch Pad

July 1, 1961

In December 1958, workmen de­molishing a World War II bar­racks at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., made a startling discovery. Con­cealed in a wall—inches behind the spot once occupied by the swivel chair of a tank commander—they found a block of TNT weighing ap­proximately one pound.

Partially decomposed, the ex­plosive was highly “sensitized.” The workmen hastily, and carefully, de­parted from the scene.

Minutes later, after the surround­ing area had been cleared and roped off, Vandenberg’s number-one ordnance-disposal expert, MSgt. Frank A. Perry, tiptoed into the booby-trapped building.

At that moment, Perry’s good friend, SSgt. Archie A. Crawford, was walking into a steel and con­crete bunker on the edge of the Pacific, five miles away. Crawford’s assignment, by comparison, was relatively easy. He and his team­mates were about to mate a re­entry vehicle to the business end of an Atlas ICBM.

Meanwhile, a continent removed, six Air Force technicians—not one of whom boasted more than four stripes on his blue worsted sleeves —were winding up a day’s work in the Philadelphia laboratories of the General Electric Company. For the past eight hours, they had been puzzling like a group of T-forma­tion quarterbacks over piles of sche­matics. The words “reentry vehicle” were etched on their tired minds.

And back across the country at Vandenberg, still another USAF sergeant drew a missile trajectory on a blackboard. He was SMSgt. Herbert W. Howard, Jr., then a lec­turer in a classroom at the Cali­fornia base. His audience today was made up of British Royal Air Force enlisted men.

Sergeants Perry, Crawford, and Howard, and the Philadelphia-based technicians had much in com­mon. All were self-professed “can­non-ball greasers.” And all belonged —and still do—to SAC’s 51st Muni­tions Maintenance Squadron, an outfit that can legitimately call it­self unique.

The 51st, with headquarters at Vandenberg, has a mission calcu­lated to make an old-fashioned, simple munitions man envious. The Squadron is knee-deep in the aero­space age. Its concerns begin with reentry vehicles and ballistic mis­sile warheads and go on from there. Squadron ordnance experts also handle a variety of sophisticated missile accessories, like squibs, igniters, and retrorockets. And they’re not above doing a bit of bomb, TNT, or land-mine disposal when the occasion demands. Ser­geant Perry’s excursion into the booby-trapped barracks was a not unusual event. In just the past six months, he has disposed of more than 800 pieces of live ordnance found on the former armored artil­lery range that is now Vandenberg.

The overripe charge of TNT on that occasion was detonated on the spot. Fortunately—for the resulting blast was a humdinger—all build­ings in the area had already been earmarked for destruction.

Who installed the charge? Perry theorizes that some long-departed tank corps GI may have been seek­ing to have his commanding of­ficer replaced—the hard way. “We’ll never know,” Sergeant Perry muses, and perhaps it’s just as well.”

By way of contrast, the 51st boasts one of Vandenberg’s most popular commanders. He is Lt. Col. Oscar J. Sundstrom, a pioneer SAC missileman who found his way into the special weapons business back in 1955. Ex-lumberjack Sundstrom arrived at Vandenberg almost three years ago.

“At that time,” he recalls, “the base population consisted largely of earth movers and construction stiffs. Ours was the first operational squadron. And, believe me, our ‘blue-suit capability’ was a novelty in those days.”

Under Colonel Sundstrom’s di­rection, the 51st got off to a flying start. In October 1958, the outfit participated in the historic first rocket launch from Vandenberg. The shot was an unqualified suc­cess. From that date to this, em­phasis in the 51st has continued to be on “professionalism.”

“In our business,” Colonel Sund­strom is fond of saying, “we can’t afford to make that first mistake once.”

Currently, about 150 men sport the organization’s striking red and yellow insignia. The device, an em­broidered reentry vehicle hurtling across an empty sky, is intended to illustrate the squadron slogan: “First in Space.” The words are ap­propriate. Colonel Sundstrom ex­plains why.

“Not too many stop to realize that the reentry vehicle is the only true missile. The balance of the bird—the power package, fuel tanks, and guidance mechanism—might be likened to an outfielder’s arm. They supply force and direction.

“But it is the baseball—or mis­sile—that travels to second base. By the same token it is the reentry vehicle alone that is destined to wind up on target.”

The 51st works with the base­balls, the reentry vehicles of USAF’s missile arsenal.

In addition to his “blue suiters,” Colonel Sundstrom superintends the efforts of a dozen General Electric and AVCO Corporation technical representatives. Associated contrac­tor personnel total an additional twenty-five.

Since its inception, the 51st has worked hand in glove with indus­try to expedite reentry vehicle development. This much-heralded concept of concurrency has paid off. Lead time has been markedly reduced. And when an RV is deemed ready for the launching pads, technicians who will main­tain and install it are trained and waiting.

Over the past three years, 51st personnel have sat in on a variety of weapon-system development con­ferences. Industry has called their contribution “invaluable.” As a re­sult, provisioning techniques, the construction of field facilities, and technical-data books have become far “more realistic.”

The 51st maintenance officer, Capt. Carl L. Bougher, puts it more succinctly: “We write the book, then proof-test it. Our record of success speaks for itself.”

Captain Bougher, a wartime pilot and a special weapons man since 1949, was the second man in the Air Force to be trained in his RV specialty. As squadron maintenance officer, the Captain has helped to guide the RV through various stages of refinement.

There are, of course, several types of RVs in existence and in various stages of development. In this area, as in others, a great deal of prog­ress has been recorded in the past few years.

It is difficult to discuss actual re­entry vehicles without violating security in a most classified area. But a look at one of the most com­monly used test RVs, even in the most general terms, points up the complexity of some of the hardware in use today. This vehicle carries aloft an arming and fuzing system, an internal power supply, and a separation system to kick it loose from the missile airframe. The pay­load includes a scoring kit, complete with a SOFAR bomb, for test purposes.

The bomb is a charge of black powder that is exploded by water pressure many feet below the ocean’s surface. Hydrophones re­cord the blast’s intensity. In this fashion, impact points for the con­tinuing series of Air Force ICBM launches can be determined with amazing preciseness.

When it arrives at any of the organization’s several checkout bays, the RV is factory-sealed in one or more enormous metal con­tainers. It is removed, and all in­terior circuitry subjected to pres­sure testing, using automatic check­out equipment. Next, the entire package is placed in the jaws of a machine that resembles an outsized lathe. There it is tumbled endlessly in a motion designed to simulate the RV’s fall through space. The machine calibrates the instrumen­tation and the RV’s arming and fuzing mechanisms. Malfunctions show up as red lights on the tester’s instrument panel.

Final assembly of a test-shot RV includes the installation of a scor­ing kit. Then the RV is mated to its proper missile. The RV is trucked to the launching pad on a specially designed trailer. After being care­fully aligned, it can be affixed in a matter of minutes to the missile air­frame.

Unfortunately, mating—or demating—today’s internally complex reentry vehicles is not quite the simple business it appears on the surface. If it were, life would be a great deal easier for the 5lst’s hard­working technicians. As it is, over­time has become the outfit’s rule of thumb, rather than an exception. Not everyone finds it onerous, how­ever.

One such enthusiast is SSgt. Archie Crawford. In point of serv­ice, the twenty-four-year-old non­com is the organization’s enlisted veteran. On a “normal” weekend, he logs twenty-five to thirty hours on the launching pads, or working in the big bays where the birds are groomed.

Last year, Crawford was asked to fly to Eniwetok as a technical adviser with SAC Commander in Chief Gen. Thomas S. Power. The shot they were slated to observe was aborted for technical difficul­ties, but Crawford recalls the event as one of the highlights of his career.

“The old man,” the Sergeant de­clares admiringly, “knows as much about RVs as I do!”

He should. It was Crawford and his fellow NCOs who schooled the four-star SAC chief.

General Power is but one of the many high-ranking Air Force offi­cers who have completed the 51st’s RV indoctrination course. And the bulk of these comprehensive briefings are given by noncommissioned officers. Colonel Sundstrom is proud of the fact.

“They’ve got the know-how,” he maintains, “and the ability to pass it on. Why not make the most of it?”

Their skill as instructors keeps the majority of 51st technicians on the move. Approximately half of the enlisted force is away on TDY most of the time. As part of its mis­sion, the 51st is responsible for training RV technicians who will man the dozens of ICBM launch sites now under construction throughout the western half of the US.

Earlier in the program, hundreds of British troops were trained at Vandenberg in the intricacies of the Thor, under knowledgeable gents like Sergeant Howard. Now, with IRBM squadrons operational in England, the 51st is busy schooling replacements for the original British contingent.

Education is a passion among Colonel Sundstrom’s select crew. To date, the organization has dis­patched more people to officer training schools than any other Vandenberg-based unit.

And the job of teaching goes on and on. It is a rare day, for ex­ample, when demolition expert Perry fails to address at least one Vandenberg gathering.

“We know that there are still some unrecovered pieces of live ordnance lying around the base,” Perry declares. “And this is home for thousands of kids. So we talk to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church groups, and mothers’ clubs.

“Nowadays, a bulldozer occa­sionally detonates an old land mine. But the children—who’ve been trained to recognize mines—won’t get close to one or to an uncleared area. And they give a wide berth to any other piece of ordnance they happen to see. So far, no one’s been hurt.”

Which is exactly the way the 51st would like to keep it.—End

AIR FORCE/SPACE DIGEST readers will find Sergeant Doherty’s byline familiar. His most recent contribution was a photo essay on Atlas which appeared in April 1961. An information special­ist at SAC Headquarters, Offutt AFB, Neb., he has written for this maga­zine on subjects ranging from Alaska to Minuteman on the rails. A veteran of both the Coast Guard and the Army Air Corps, with some fifteen years of military service, he joined USAF in 1954. He has written for several na­tional magazines and is a fishing en­thusiast when he can find the time. He is a native of St. Louis.