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 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, mechanical changes occurred, safety procedures were adjusted, and the suits were repaired and theoretically upgraded. But the hazards of the 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 a team dispatched to a missile site was a crapshoot, 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. PTS troops had a real thing for mooning each other and anyone in authority – not that I ever did that. I knew security policemen who rated PTS troops in the same category of crazy as 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 Schosser pretty much nailed us as a group. We were proud of what we did and of our “bad boy” reputation.

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

A view from the silo door down 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 has 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 tight-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, not 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.

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