One of the Most Dangerous Jobs in the Air Force

Recently, I read Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. I was most interested in his writings about the explosion at Titan II missile complex 374-7 near Damascus, Arkansas in September 1980. Both Mr. Scott and I were working in Titan when this disaster occurred. Schlosser’s detailed account of the events of that night brought home just how much I’d forgotten and also how much I never knew about the disaster. It also reminded me of the profound love that those of us who serve have for each other.

Jun 1978 Tech School
Jun 1978 Tech School

I don’t talk a lot about my first job in the military. As one of my friends told me the other day, “That was soooo last century, girl!” He’s right – it was a long damn time ago. I joined the military in 1978 and became a Propellant Transfer System (PTS) specialist on the Titan II ICBM (big ass missile for you civilians), and I was assigned to the 390th Strategic Missile Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona. There weren’t a lot of us who held the title – probably less than 200 on active duty at any given time. We were divided between the three operational Titan II wings at Little Rock, McConnell, and Davis-Monthan, the tech school (it was at Chanute AFB when I attended), and the 3901st Strategic Missile Evaluation Squadron in California. Even if we didn’t all know each other personally, we were aware of each other by name and reputation.

Our primary job was to load and unload the propellants utilized by the Titan II, and handle any issues involving those propellants or the equipment. In a nutshell, we were the gas passers.

Scan10007Those are PTS troops in the suits and while that red cloud looks cool – it was freaking lethal. We joked about the BFRCs – Big F***ing Red Clouds created when we spilled a little oxidizer, but that was the nature of the job. Every day, we worked with some of the most dangerous stuff in the world. There were two main components: Fuel – Aerozine 50 was a 50/50 blend of hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and Oxidizer – nitrogen tetroxide (NTO to some N2O4 to us). They are hypergolic – that means you don’t have to light a fuse; they ignite from contact with each other. If properly maintained the propellants were stable and could be stored in the missile tanks long term

I’d arrived at Davis-Monthan AFB less than a month before the 24 August 1978 accident at complex 533-7 near Rock, Kansas. While loading the oxidizer tank, a Teflon O-ring became lodged in the poppet valve mechanism and the valve wouldn’t close.

Aerial view of the oxi leak at 533-7
Aerial view of the oxi leak at 533-7
When the team disconnected from the missile, the valve remained open and the missile downloaded itself into the silo. That accident cost two PTS troops their lives and permanently disabled another. Most documents state that Staff Sergeant Robert J. Thomas and Airman 1st Class Erby Hepstall lost their lives because the oxidizer penetrated their protective clothing through tears and design flaws.

We PTS troops know the real reason they died – it was because SSgt Thomas and A1C Hepstall went into a dirty hole and did everything they could to save the missile and their injured teammate. They got the more important of the two things done – they saved their teammate.

1382938_484341048331397_1411149783_nAs happens after every major accident, fingers were pointed, blame was assigned, and crap rolled downhill. But good thing also come of these events. In this case, mechanical changes occurred, safety procedures were adjusted, and the suits were repaired and theoretically upgraded. But at the end of the day, the hazards associated with our job didn’t really change. We worked daily on a weapons system that was archaic, utilizing equipment that was older than most of the people operating it, and we wore protective gear that, due to its age and design, may or may not function when you most needed it to. We also worked for Strategic Air Command who’s informal motto was “To err is human – to forgive is not SAC policy.” All of us knew the risks – every day that a team dispatched to a missile site was a crap shoot, but we never considered not going. It was our job.

Eric Schlosser author of Command and Control… described us as a group:

“The PTS guys were a different breed. Outside of work they had a reputation for being rowdy and wild. They had one of the most dangerous jobs in the Air Force – and at the end of the day they liked to blow off steam, drinking and partying harder than just about anyone else at the base. They were more likely to ride motorcycles, ignore speed limits, violate curfews, and toss a commanding officer into a shower fully clothed after consuming too much alcohol. They called the missiles “birds,” and they were attached to them and proud of them in the same way that good automobile mechanics care about cars. The danger of the oxidizer and the fuel wasn’t theoretical. It was part of the job. The daily risks often inspired a defiant, cavalier attitude among the PTS guys. Some of them had been known to fill a Ping-Pong ball with oxidizer and toss it into a bucket of fuel. The destruction of the steel bucket, accompanied by flames, was a good reminder of what they were working with. And if you were afraid of the propellants, as most people would be, you needed to find a different line of work.”

Were we really that way? Sometimes. I specifically recall that PTS troops had a real thing for mooning each other and anyone in authority – not that I ever did that.

It wasn’t just our view of ourselves. Others perceived us as a bit of a wild bunch. I knew several security policemen at Davis Monthan who rated PTS troops in the same category of crazy as the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) guys. What I can tell you is that we were one of the few career fields (along with EOD, pararescue, and tactical air combat controllers) to receive hazardous duty pay for the work we did. Fewer than 5,000 people in the entire Air Force qualified to receive haz pay and even firefighters didn’t have it until 2005. I think Schlosser pretty much nailed us as a group. We were damn proud of what we did and our “bad boy” reputation was just a part of that.

A view from the silo door to Level 2 at 571-7.
A view from the silo door to Level 2 at 571-7.

I don’t think any of us ever forgot what had happened at 3-7, but I know we didn’t dwell on it. When you work with hazardous materials, you have to completely focus on what you’re doing when you’re doing it.

Schlosser writes in detail about the accident that occurred near Damascus, Arkansas in September 1980. At complex 374-7, a PTS troop dropped a heavy socket while working in the launch duct. The socket took a bad bounce and instead of hitting the wall or landing harmlessly in the bottom of the launch duct, the tool pierced the stage one fuel tank. The missile immediately began to download itself into the bottom of the silo. This was an operational missile with a full load of fuel and oxidizer as well as a nuclear warhead. The combined weight of the materials on what would soon be an empty fuel tank would cause the airframe to collapse and rupture the oxidizer tanks. Almost eight hours later, Senior Airman David Livingstone and Staff Sergeant Jeff Kennedy went onto the complex in an attempt to gather critical information for the command staff. While they were on the site, the missile exploded, destroying the launch complex and blowing the nuclear warhead out of the silo. Sra Livingstone died several hours later from the injuries resulting from the blast and the toxic cloud of vapor from the oxidizer that didn’t burn off. Amazingly, SSgt Kennedy survived. Twenty-one people were injured either in the explosion or during the rescue efforts that followed.

A view toward the complex after the explosion.
A view toward the complex after the explosion.

When almost everyone else fled the scene, the surviving PTS troops stayed behind to try to find their brothers. They weren’t leaving without them. And they didn’t.

Every person has a moment when they realize they are mortal. The explosion at 4-7 was my moment. I wasn’t there in person, but I felt the loss and the horror, just as every PTS troop did. Suddenly the earlier deaths of SSgt Thomas and A1C Hepstall had new meaning. Three men were dead, and all they’d been doing was the same job that I went and did every day. I’m also positive that every PTS troop had the feeling – “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Sunrise launch of a Titan II.
Sunrise launch of a Titan II.
The men and women of PTS are still a small, tightly-knit community. We’ve been reaching out to each other and thanks to a Facebook group, we’re all reconnecting and the war stories have been flying. It’s been a lot of fun, but more importantly, it’s been healing for many of us.

There’s an unbreakable bond that occurs between the people who do work this dangerous. The title brother or sister has true meaning to those of us who use it amongst ourselves. Placing your life in the hands of your team members is an act of faith – our faith is based on the absolute and certain knowledge that no one would ever be left behind.

Nothing has changed. My brothers and sisters will always be there.

To read more about these mishaps I suggest you purchase Command and Control by Eric Schlosser available in Kindle or print from Amazon
Online summaries of the events at:
Complex 533-7 at Rock, Kansas
Complex 374-7 at Damascus, Arkansas

And get off your butts and visit the Titan II Missile Museum at Complex 5717 in Green Valley, Arizona.

Comments

  1. Dan McNally says

    I was in PTS at 308 MIMS from 67 through Oct 69, when I cross trained. I ended up doing over 25 years in the USAF, and in all those years, in all the jobs I held, none came close to the spirit of family and brotherhood I experienced as one of those crazy PTS troops.

  2. Bill Scott says

    I guess you had to be there to really understand the risks of the job. Nobody ever thought much about going to the Missile Sites, and having a Major Accident occur. But it sure opened a lot of eye’s and souls when the ones at Kansas and Little Rock happened. I was working in Job Control the night the site at Little Rock Blew up. We were listening to the SAC emergency Com Net, which consisted of all three of the Titan II bases and SAC headquarters. The builders of the missile, Martin Marietta, and even 3901st in Vandenberg were also on the line that night. Everyone was trying to brain storm, and figure out a way to save the site, or to neutralize the hazard, and minimize the damage. All of a sudden, the line went silent. Everyone kind of knew what happened, but nobody said a word for what seemed like a very long time. I’m sure it was only around 15 or so seconds, but it felt like forever. Now to me, that was a real “Eye Opener” into the jobs we did. No one knew what would ever happen if one of our sites blew-up, but everyone used to wonder what might happen, but after this night, nobody ever had to wonder about it again. Not too long after this accident, it was decided by the powers to be, that the Titan II Missile System would be “DEACTIVATED” !!!

  3. Earl halmon says

    I was in PTS at McConnell AFB Ks Grad from Chanute Jan74 McConnell-78. Accident 16 Sept 76 Oxidizer pump room. Spent 19 days in the critical condition. Total lung falure .Crosstrained 78 became a Electrical Powerlineman retired 93 (Red Horse) troop. PTS was the most dangerous job I had in the military. PTS we were trained to be Second to None. We were trained that the job came first!! No matter what. It took me 2 years to crosstrain even after the Mental Health Docs says crosstrain SAC say No!! twice. Still having problems today . And fighting the VA just saying.

    • says

      And yet, no matter how many times the SAC or VA system fails, we never stopped caring about the people we worked with. Never stop fighting for the rights you earned by being one of the elite. I hope things improve for you, brother.

      • Ronald Gamble says

        I have heard of the challenges and champions of the PTS experts. I met Earl Halmon in 1982, and I was immediately impressed. We served honoring our fellow active duty and veterans who gave ‘the last full measure of devotion’ and I will say definitely, that Earl Halmon exudes the greatness of military dedication and service. I greatly respect his career contributions and hold him in the highest regard as a friend, and military brother. Thank you Earl for the years of your contributions and the invaluable and immeasurable sacrifices that you have given. Love you my uniformed brother. You have my endless support. God Bless.

        • says

          Thank you for letting us know, Ronald. It’s always great to hear such nice things about my PTS brothers. I’ve made sure to let Earl know you posted.

          • Earl Halmon says

            Thank you for posting the great comment from a great friend and fellow vetern. Thank You for all you have done. We did the best we know how. It is a honor to serve with you and the Keepers of Peace . Titan II ( PTS/PC&E)

        • Earl Halmon says

          It was a Honor to have served as a Propellant Transfer System (PTS) airman. We are a special group of airman that did a job that was not heard of. Our special way of keeping the peace during the cold war. I was a very young airman at that time . And very proud of my Sisters and Brothers I served with. We were on duty 24/7 keeping the peace. By keeping our (missiles) Titans II ready at All Cost. I mean at All Cost. Some gave All they could. We are the Titan II (PTS /PC&E) Airman doing our part Keeping the Peace.
          381 MIMS (PTS/PC&E)
          McConnell AFB Ks

  4. Annette Sherman says

    Lynn,
    You always know how to describe things perfectly. Being one of the few PTS sisters ,I am grateful that you capture what we did so eloquently. It’s hard to describe it to people who think their clerical jobs are stressful.
    Annette

    • says

      Thank you, Annette. We all went out and did our jobs with little thought for ourselves. I don’t recall worrying so much about myself as I do worrying about not letting anyone else down. I look forward to meeting you some day. I hope you’ll make a PTS reunion – there aren’t a ton of PTS people out there and only a handful of us gals.

  5. Jon Muckey says

    Thanks Lynne for a great story and review. Apparently I was a little distracted when your original story came out but the story brought back a lot of memories. While I was only a lowly HVAC Titan II troop and married to a PTS troop at the time, I can attest to the impact and intense sadness these accidents had on the entire Titan II community as a whole, and especially on the PTS troops. It was a time for mourning and a time of learning, but we all continued to stand the wall and do our duty day-in and day-out. Thanks for the memories and may God bless all soldiers wherever you are – thanks for your service.

    • says

      Thank you, Jon. When things like this happen, all we have is our pride in our duty, a willingness to stand our ground, and the need to do our job for the sake of our brothers in arms. The danger of what we did sank in that night, but the next day, we all showed up. None of us were willing to be the one who wasn’t there for the rest of the team. Thanks for always being there and standing with us.

  6. Howard (Jack) Jackson says

    Thanks Lynn for the story you must have been the class directly after mine at Chanute. I arrived at Little Rock PTS shop May 1978 an worked as a PTS team member for over nine years and one of those years was as Team Chief. I was at Lamaze class with my wife the evening my team members were called to respond to Damascus. By the time I received word that we were called out I had already been replaced by another PTS member. Like so many others I deactivated LRAFB and remained in the Air Force until the end of 2002. I cannot tell the story of that night and the following days without getting choked up. Tears rolled down my checks as I read Command and Control realizing that we were just like family then. Many of my brothers I have reconnected with on FB. Thanks again for the story.

    • says

      Hello Jack. I remember you. I came to Little Rock in ’84 after shutting down DM. I was in the shop for about a month before being pulled up to P&S to take over the plans section for deactivation since I’d done it for DM. I think I only dispatched about four times before going up to plans. The Little Rock folks were terrific to me when I arrived – Ron Beaudry remains a good friend. I hope you’ll make the PTS reunion in April out in Tucson.

  7. Kimber Woods says

    Great article and extremely weell written. I was honored to be part of this fine group of Air Force personnel who daily exposed themselves to untold dangers to support the Titan II missile system. I finished tech school at Chanute AFB in Illionis in May 63 and was assigned to the 381st MIMS at McConnelll AFB arriving there as the 381St SMW was becoming operational. I believe our first operational site was 533-8 during August 63.
    Later groups were more fortunate than we were in that Haz Duty pay was unheard of during the early operational days of Titan 11. We were fortunate to be supplied with box lunches from the mess hall as we left base many times to only return sometimes 12-15 hrs later. After much GI complaining about missed meals we were blessed to start receiving pay for separate rations. We were so thrilled.
    I enjoy so very much the postings of PTS personnel and being able to relate to many of the of the situations they write about. We were and I believe we still are a culture a bit apart from those who never served as we did and were never exposed to all the dangers we were on a regular basis.
    Blessings to all.

    Kimber Woods
    PTS
    1963-1966

  8. Frank Cousino says

    Great article Lynn. I was at Chanute June/July 76. Assigned to 381st MIMS at McConnell from 1 Sept 76 -28 Aug 86. Crosstrained after McConnell deact into Logistics. Enjoyed Logistics, but never had the family feeling as I had while in PTS. Great group of people.

    Frank “Cuz” Cousino

  9. Larry Mersberg says

    I concur with Woody, I believe I was in the 2nd group of PTS’ ers at 381st (March of 64 through December of 67. I remember the box lunches. Although we had hardships l wouldn’t have wanted any other job in the Air Force. Working with the fine men of the 381st PTS was an honor. I salute all of those men and women that wore a RFHCO. Hope to see you all at those he reunion in April 2015.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *