At Sheppard AFB in Texas, the mission is men to match the missile deterrent. Here USAF officers and airmen learn to maintain and operate the big birds —and to fire them in anger should the need arise. Sheppard is one of the nation’s prime intercontinental-missile training centers. Atlas and Titan missiles, ICBMs number one and two for the free world, get the most attention these days. Instructors from Sheppard are also training Italian crews for the Jupiter IRBM, just as they trained British crews to operate the Thor.
By early this year, enrollment at the missile training center—which is commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Moore—was about 900.
On another part of the big base, about 2,000 airmen were learning to repair and maintain aircraft and engines. But ICBM training is becoming more important to the Air Force and to the free world every day. Next spring, officials of the Technical Training Center expect enrollment at the missile school to rise to about 2,250 and enrollment in the aircraft and engine school to recede.
The missile training center at Sheppard, part of Air Training Command’s Technical Training Center, enrolled its first students at the end of 1959. In mid-1960, the school was able to take over ICBM training from the missile manufacturers. USAF assumed responsibility for turning out missilemen. The raw material is flying officers and skilled aircraft technicians, young lieutenants with engineering degrees, and bright new recruits. End products required are launch control, operations, and maintenance officers, and guidance, control, missile systems, and maintenance technicians.
All of these students attend classes in Kearby Hall, a windowless, top-security, air-conditioned building. Visitors, if they get in at all, must wear badges and be accompanied everywhere by a badge-wearing escort. The hail, newly built, cost $3 million. It is named for fighter ace Col. Neel Kearby, a native of nearby Wichita Falls, Tex., who won the Congressional Medal of Honor over New Guinea in 1944. He was killed in the action.
Kearby Hall has 126 classrooms and laboratories and a really huge missile bay that harbors two Titans and two Atlases. One Atlas and one Titan are complete. The others are broken down for training purposes. These are real birds, brothers of those on operational sites.
The reporter walked into one of the large air-conditioned training rooms on the building’s first floor.
An intent second lieutenant sat at a control console, the exact duplicate of the control setup in an Atlas launch site blockhouse. He and an instructor ran through mock launch procedure. Console lights glowed red, yellow, green. Instructor and student learned that the ground-support units for an Atlas were in working order, that the hydraulic-pneumatic system was ready, the liquid oxygen and fuel system completely loaded and ready to flow.
When a light failed to change color in proper sequence, they considered what this would mean on the launching pad. Then they went through the procedure of telephoning instructions to the enlisted technician—who in this case sat at the other end of the classroom. Other students stood at one side watching.
In a room at the other end of Kearby Hall a B-47 pilot, a captain, frowned, moistened his lips, concentrated over the lights of another control panel. This one was the control position for a Titan missile. Except for instructor Terry Green, a tall first lieutenant, the captain was just as alone as he had been in his office atop the B-47, facing a busy instrument panel and surrounded by miles of circuitry hidden inside the fuselage and wings, along with several thousand gallons of jet fuel.
Behind the student captain, Lieutenant Green walked nervously up and down, waiting to see if the student would manage to send his missile on its way toward target despite pitfalls built into the problem.
The student consulted his checklist. Carrying it, not trusting to his memory, he walked to a cabinet, opened the door, checked transistors and wires within. At each step, he called to instructor Green, told him what he was up to. Then he returned to the console, resumed the countdown.
This was typical missile control training—training to control mazes of circuitry, equipment costing millions of dollars—one man in charge of it all, relying on a checklist and his own quick mind to keep the countdown moving. Officers at Sheppard tell you that in missilry, more than in B-47s, more than in maintenance depots, more than on the production lines, success depends upon the quick understanding of a complex system by one extremely well trained man, capable of quick judgment and quick action.
Like the captain learning how to launch a Titan, many pilots and navigators of B-47s and other aircraft are becoming missile retreads. B-47s are gradually phasing out of SAC, missiles are phasing in. When Atlas launch complexes began rising on bases likes Forbes AFB, Kan., where B-47 bombers had reigned supreme, many aircrew members read the handwriting on the wall.
In classes with the flyer retreads are young second lieutenants, fresh out of college and new to active duty. Engineering degrees put them on the inside track to missile duty as far as the Air Force is concerned. “I chose missile training because it’s the coming thing,” a 1960 Air Force Academy graduate explained.
Sheppard has devoted a major share of its attention to the training of skilled technicians. Training of airmen at the missile center began when it opened its doors in 1959. Officer classes did not commence until this year. For the first missile classes, USAF selected some of the best aircraft and engine technicians in the service. They were men whom their units hated to lose. The Air Force was determined to build a core of highly capable missilemen, the effort was a success.
Airmen today go through courses of ten to twenty-four weeks to become technicians and supervisors on missile maintenance. They learn one specialty, closely related to their previous experience if they are old-timers, such as hydraulics repair, electrical repair, guidance systems, or control systems. They learn their specialty for one missile, the Atlas or the Titan, but not both. Later, if they transfer to a site with the other missile, they know enough to learn anew on the job.
In the huge missile bay at Kearby Hall one day recently, a master sergeant and his staff showed student airmen and officers the inner workings of propulsion, hydraulic, and other systems of the Atlas. Another NCO supervised Titan students. The teaching aids were the Center’s torn-down Atlas. During exams, later on, the students would spend a lot of time rechecking the interiors of the sections, finding or verifying their answers. The course is demanding; at least one exam during it lasts six full hours.
In a small room just off the big missile bay, advanced students check every element of the myriad of gyroscopes, accelerometers, and the maze of circuitry in the guidance and control systems. Rather than using a magnifying glass and a watchmaker’s pincers, they call data-processing machines to their aid—in training just as they will later in actual operation. The atmosphere in the Automatic Programmed Checkout Equipment system room (APCHE) is like that of a business office, except that young men in fatigues are walking around instead of trimly dressed girls clacking across the floor on high heels. The student puts a deck of punched cards in a data-processing machine. Wires run from the desk to the guidance canister, or whatever else is being checked.
As the cards run through the machine, a printed tape begins to flow out. For every swift entry on the tape, the wires and gadgetry have checked out one element of the equipment and printed the report on the tape. It’s done by numbers; each element must check out within a high and low limit, and the APCHE technicians can see for themselves on the tape when an element is all right and when it needs adjustment or repair.
The technician students, like student control officers, learn quickly how much they must know in order to supervise a little kingdom within the world of maintenance.
“Maintenance men on missiles have responsibilities that rival those of operations men,” points out Lt. Col. Frank C. Watrous, deputy commander of the training group which oversees missile and other training at Sheppard. “The missiles in our inventory have brought about a maintenance requirement that’s almost unbelievable.”
In addition to the core control officer and technician courses, Sheppard also provides a special two-week course in supervising and planning for senior officers who may command missile troops or do staff work that affects them. Students in supervising and planning often are senior officers with leaves or eagles on their shoulders. Some of them wear one, two, even three stars.
All of this activity points up the Air Force’s missile-and-space new frontier. To meet the challenges of a new age of military technology, USAF realizes it must train, train, and retrain. The emphasis at Headquarters USAF in recent months has been on plans to provide the service of today and the future with a reservoir of officers and airmen with adequate technical background and competence. In the mill are highly significant scientific-technical and general education programs to prepare the men of the Air Force for a revolutionary weapons era.
Sheppard’s missile training center is making a major contribution to USAF capability at the dawn of this era.—END
The author, Louis Alexander, is a veteran contributor to AIR FORCE/SPACE DIGEST. His last article to appear in these pages was “The Air Force’s Junior Partners,” a report on the Civil Air Patrol, published in February 1960. Mr. Alexander is a former newspaperman, an Air Force Reservist, and a busy free-lance writer. A Texan, he is married, father of two children.