Posts Tagged ‘Vandenberg AFB’

Memories of my youth: Genteel poverty

December 29, 2018

The military has never been exceptionally well paid. In recent years, despite the lies the President tells, pay has been adequate, and pay raises at least kept pace with inflation. But at the end of the last Century there were times when enlisted members with families qualified for food stamps. There was a ten year period when my real income (counting taxes and inflation) didn’t change, despite an increase in seniority and a promotion.

Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, we lived in a state of what might be called genteel poverty. There was no trouble keeping food on the table and shoes on our feet but there was nothing extra for any but the smallest luxuries.

I had always been a bookish lad and living on Vandenberg AFB in my early high school years, my tastes tended toward space science and satellites and such. Since all the major aerospace firms had offices on base, it was possible to write to them and get publicity packets, with photos and other handouts. One such letter prompted a call from the Convair folks, and after a discussion of what I was interested in, they invited me to come down to their San Diego plant to look at the Atlas production line. This was the chance of a lifetime for a nerdy high schooler.

Atlas assembly line

Alas, it was not to be. The trip would incur expenses — travel, lodging, food, and so forth, more than our budget would allow. My parents talked it over, seriously trying to find a way to make it happen (send him down on the bus, alone; see if there were friends he could stay with in San Diego). After a long while they concluded that there was no way to do it. We simply didn’t have the money.

I, of course, was crushed, and since we were living on base, there were essentially no sources of income for a teenager. But I’d heard their discussions and I knew their decision was not taken lightly. Maybe some other day.

That came back to me when I was reading about the impact of the government shut-down. Now, this time the military was not effected. The DoD has an on-time budget, the first time in ten years. But hundreds of thousands of other government employees (including the US Coast Guard, which is DHS, not DoD, and so doesn’t have a budget) were going into the new year, trying to fund the equivalent of a couple dozen trips to San Diego with nothing in their bank accounts and useless OPM advice in their mail boxes.

Memories of my youth: Titan launch

May 3, 2018

On the 3rd of May, 1961, the Air Force conducted a silo launch test at Vandenberg AFB. The test was to see if a missile could stand the stress of being launched from inside the silo, rather than being lifted to the surface. The Silo Launch Test Facility (68-SLTF) had a W-shaped blast deflector at the bottom and two vents on the sides. This was intended to be the normal launch method for the new Titan II ICBM, but that missile was still in testing, so they used a Titan I, instead.

I was a teenager, living on Vandenberg at the time, and of course we all knew the test was going to take place. We also knew of a good place to observe it from, so on the day of the launch we bicycled down the back roads of the base.  Turns out, it was such a good place to observe launches from that the Air Force had set up a press facility there.

After some delays (as usual), the missile was launched, and was spectacular, also as usual. I took pictures with my 35mm camera, and my friend, Jim Bones used an 8mm movie camera on a tripod, looking through one lens of a pair of binoculars.

Unbeknownst to us, an Air Force cameraman included us in his shot of the launch, which photo was used as the basis for a painting, currently in the Air Force Art Collection. I actually saw it, thirty some years ago, hanging in a back office in the Pentagon.

That’s me, kneeling, on the left

The equipment on the left was a quad-.50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun mount, modified to hold a 150mm tracking camera. The two people kneeling next to the tracker were me and Jim. Our jackets were actually olive drab. The Air Force blue was artist’s license. The trailer with the white canopy on the right is a press phone bank.

Here’s a video of the launch:

Painting Reference:

Artist: Nixon Galloway
Catalog Number: 1961.082

Video Reference:

Memories of my youth: Titan OSTF

December 10, 2017

It was a cool December night on the central coast of California. The year was 1960, and we were living on Vandenberg AFB. I had  my telescope out in the back yard, doing some star-gazing, when a friend called and said they were doing some interesting stuff at a Titan I silo across the valley.

Family housing at VAFB was all new construction on the north side of the facilities area of the base. Looking north from there (you had to climb up on the roof, which I did), you could see across a plateau (where the 4th Armored Division trained in WWII, back when this was Camp Cook) and San Antonio creek (where wild boar would wander now and then) to where the USAF had built a number of test/training launchers for their various ICBMs.

Ready to launch

Ready to launch

In fact, VAFB had at least one of every kind of AF launch pad, from the Atlas D gantries to the Minuteman I silos. The one I was looking at that night was Operational Silo Test Facility, used for the Titan I ICBM.

Titan I was one of the early ICBMs, and was not designed to be launched from within a silo. The procedure was to load the fuel (RP-1) and oxidiser (liquid oxygen) in the protection of the silo, then bring the missile to the surface and launch it — lift to launch, in the parlance of the day.

On the 10th of December they were conducting a fueling test, a mock wet firing, in preparation for an actual launch later in the month. The plan was to load the missile, bring it to the surface (stages 1-5 in the graphic below), run a bunch of diagnostic tests, and then lower back down and defuel it. Unfortunately, something went wrong.

Steps 1 through 5

Steps 1 through 5

My first indication was a beautiful fireball, more blue than orange, with lots of sparkly bits. Fifteen seconds or so later came the rumble of the explosion, and then a lot of smoke and fire and flashing red lights.

What had happened was this: when they were finished with the exercise and started to lower the missile back down for defueling, the elevator slipped, and the fully loaded missile fell to the bottom of the silo. There, it ruptured, mixed the fuel and oxidiser, and blew up with a force strong enough to pull the entire steel scaffolding structure out of the silo. It was later reported that the explosion broke down two of the three blast doors between the silo and the launch control center.

That's the interior structure of the silo, laid out to the left

That’s the interior structure of the silo, laid out to the left

Today, OSTF lies rusting, covered in creosote bush and manzanita. Here’s a Wikipedia picture:

It's still a hundred feet deep, so watch your step

It’s still a hundred feet deep, so watch your step

And here is a link to a gallery of current pictures. The grey, overcast background is typical of the California coast that I remember from my youth.