TOP STORY >>Titan missile crisis
Leader staff writer
It was Sept. 19, 1980, a day the 308th Titan II Strategic Missile Wing will never forget.
At 6:30 p.m., after a 16-hour day, an eight-and three-quarter-pound socket fell from its wrench at a missile silo in Damascus, 40 miles northwest of Little Rock Air Force Base.
At 3 a.m., BOOM! That fallen socket led to the explosion of Titan 374-7, a 350,000-pound missile with a nine-and-a-half-megaton thermonuclear warhead attached. Flames shot into the air; two- to three-inch-thick pieces of steel, the size of a table, sliced through the air; and the 750-ton missile silo door was found a quarter-of-a-mile away.
Sr. Airman David L. Livingston died in the explosion; 21 people were injured, and Damascus residents experienced ill effects from the fumes. “It was one tremendous explosion,” said retired Col. Jimmie D. Gray, former vice-wing commander at Little Rock Air Force Base. Twenty-six years later, three retired 308th Strategic Missile Wing officers on Thursday discussed “The Damascus Accident” as part of the “War Stories Lecture Series” presented by the Jacksonville Museum of Military History.
To discuss one of the worst mishaps in the 25 years of the 308th’s existence at LRAFB, Gray was joined by retired Maj. Vincent Maes, with missile maintenance, and retired Lt. Col. William Stockton, Security Police Squadron commander at LRAFB.
“It should in no way detract from the outstanding contributions thousands of men and women of the 308th organization made over a 25-year period. Their dedication and sacrifice ensured a lasting peace through nuclear deterrents,” Gray said.
“We were an outstanding unit, and we’re presenting our worst side, but there are lessons to be learned,” Gray said.
Stockton shared the overall view of the Titan II missile and its relation to the Cold War, with the nation’s biggest threat being Russia.
“It was a period of the Cold War. Things were very difficult between the U.S. and Russia and our diplomatic relations,” Stockton said.
The Titan II missile was used as a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. It was the most powerful missile in the U.S. arsenal, 110 feet long by 10 feet wide. It carried a nine-and-a-half-megaton warhead; one megaton is equivalent to one million tons of dynamite.
The thermonuclear bomb on the Titan was 1,700 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. Collectively, the 18 Titan missiles in Arkan-sas had more destructive power than all the wars in human history until that time.
Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona and McConnell AFB in Kansas each had 18 missiles. Maes, who worked in missile maintenance and operation at Davis-Monthan AFB, explained the mission system details of the Titan II missile and how maintenance was performed on it.
The control center was manned by a four-person crew that monitored the status of the missile; this was also where the missile was launched. “It took two keys to launch, and once you turned both keys, it took less than a minute to launch,” Maes said.
Jack Meadows, who was on the original 1963 crew and also in attendance at the presentation, told The Leader that he was never worried about the possibility of having to launch the missile, but he was worried there was no recall switch.
“There was no destruct factor. Once it was launched, it was gone,” Meadows said.
“If it was launched by mistake, there was nothing we could do about it,” Meadows added. Also in attendance was retired Chief MSgt. Bill Johnson, the last senior enlisted adviser for the 308th, who told The Leader that he too was not worried about having to launch the Titan.
“We just hoped that nobody else launched theirs either,” Johnson said. The missile was housed in a silo within a silo that consisted of eight levels. Maintenance crews were working on level two when the accident happened. Attached to the hydraulic standing platforms was a rubberized boot that flipped over between the missile and the platform to prevent anything from falling through if dropped.
The day missile 374-7 exploded, the boot didn’t keep the socket from falling. At 6:30 p.m., maintenance crews entered the silo to begin work after being delayed due to various unrelated equipment malfunctions. The eight- and three-quarter-pound socket fell, hit the standing platform and bounced toward the missile.
The boot had become too pliable through the years, and the socket fell 70 feet down the silo, hit the thrust mount and bounced into the side of the stage one fuel tank. The 100,000-gallon fuel tank emptied into the bottom of the silo. The fuels interacted and generated heat, which in turn increased the pressure on the tanks. At 8 p.m., the wing made the decision to evacuate the control center.
“When we did that, we had no readings and no way of telling what was going on out there,” Gray said. “We lost all readings,” Gray added.
Many attempts were made to get into the control center to see the readings, according to Gray. At 3 a.m., two people, Living-ston and Sgt. Jack Kennedy, made it into the complex. “When they made it in and had to back out because the fuel was so concentrated they couldn’t see, there was some controversy on who told them to turn on exhaust fan 105,” Gray said.
What that did, according to Gray, was pull the heavy concentration of fuel into the equipment area with all the electrical pumps.
“And automatically, boom!” Gray said. “The fire flashed back into the silo, which already had tremendous heat in there, and when the fire flashed back, the stage one oxidizer tank that was already very, very high in pressure, erupted.”
Within one hour of the accident, Gray found the nuclear warhead intact. “It was cracked, but it pegged out on the radio-activity scanner,” Gray said.
Media of the time reported that the warhead was missing. “The rumor of us losing the nuclear weapon prevailed for years after,” Gray said.
Lessons learned from this accident brought about security improvements near nuclear weapons. Security measures to prevent accidents include: all workers wearing a belt with lanyards to attach tools to, a cloth on the platform to reduce the chance of tools bouncing off the platform if they do fall and a renovation of the platforms.
Also included in the changes was the realization that training and qualification should never be compromised; communication and coordination with local authorities are needed; and that no weapon system is totally safe because of the chance of personal error.