Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Cold War Warriors

An Interesting Night with the Snark

Captain James Berrall, USAF, Ret.

Back in 1958, at the dawn of the Guided Missile Era, (which does not seem so long ago to me) the Air Force announced that it had openings for the first formal class intended to create Guided Missile Launch Officers.

I was the youngest member of the class - a pretty green First Lt. We began our classroom instruction at Amarillo Air Force Base, where we learned about "Snark," the SM-62. "Snark" seems to mean something else now, but then it was an air-breathing missile and flew through the air similarly to what we now call a cruise missile, a very BIG cruise missile. (It was actually somewhat longer than the famous Flying Fortress of World War I1).

The warhead section traveled ballistically for the last 90 seconds or so of its trajectory, after the missile had – theoretically – chugged all the way across the arctic for about 10 hours and broke apart over the target. It had an extreme range of almost 7000 miles. Then something the size of a trolley car came screaming down from about 50,000 feet. But that was the only time any part of the flight was ballistic.

"Well, maybe we'll nail their victory celebration," I always liked to say.

During training there were a lot of rumors going around about the Snark program getting cancelled and then we would all get transferred to either the Thor or maybe the Jupiter program, which would have meant becoming real BALLISTIC missile launch officers – and overseas duty in either Turkey or Italy, oh boy! But it was not meant to be.

From Amarillo we went to Cape Canaveral for integrated crew training. After that, in June of 1959, we went to Presque Isle AFB in Maine.

At Presque Isle maintenance crews assembled work stands all summer, for there was little else to do. There were no missiles to be seen and once again rumors flew. But finally the big C-124s started to come in, sometimes twice a week. Big shrouded shapes would be rolled off - missiles with wings unattached and folded up beside them. They were trucked up to the missile area, put in one of the buildings where they were assembled. That was someone else's job - Northrop employees who could not believe they were still in the United States. They could not wait to get all the missiles done and get out of there - out of the desolate Northland and back to sunny southern California!

If they thought it looked desolate then, in summer, they should have seen it later, under six feet of snow!

Then we started final crew training. I was outranked by all the other officers in the class, so the first seven launch officers were made instructors and their crews. I had the first crew, R-08 – a regular run-of-the-mill, straight-duty alert crew. When we passed our Stan Board exam, we were declared combat ready. That made me the youngest Combat-Ready Intercontinental Missile Launch Officer (later "Launch Director") in the USAF, indeed, I suppose, anywhere, unless there was a 24 year-old at Vandenberg with the Atlas-D squadron that I never heard about.

Not that I dwelt on that, in fact I never thought about it. What I did think about some was that people did not seem to take me very seriously.

Well, we still had some more training to complete. As some readers may well be able to remember, there was the Northrup way, the Air Force way and then, the SAC way. Most of it involved standardization and detailed checklists but one part of it was called "positive control" and involved a list of 100 questions which you had to get right – all of them. Some questions involved Thermonuclear Warheads, so I thought that was a pretty good idea. That was the only time in my life I have ever been perfect.

There were many events that happened during those days and days to come at that base which people (especially safety officers) would find horrifying and unbelievable now, but this was early in the game and we were sort of breaking trail. One particularly interesting event for me happened one black night, during our final count-down training...

Ice-water was falling in sheets from the sky. We had gone to full power for the last sixty seconds before simulated launch. The bird was out on the launch pad. Screaming, I had counted down the last ten seconds over the intercom and pointed at (NOT touched) the launch switch (not a button, nor yet a key). I looked out the heavy glass window at the pad, thumbed the mic and said, "Missile away - booster separation normal." Then, normally, we would retard to idle, let the engine cool down, go to "engine stop," lower the launcher and tow the bird around to the other end of the building where it would be checked over and readied for another run.

But not this time.

We had told the missile to retard to idle and it had ignored us!

The cursed thing was still out there on the pad, reared up on its launcher with its wings spread, thundering away, shaking the ground and the building, proudly telling all the base, the town of Presque Isle and all the surrounding territory for miles around that it was one GREAT BIG POWERFUL MONSTER - lunging at its leash - trying to burst its hold-downs and leap into the black sky, impatient to get going on the long icy, stratospheric trek to... where?

We were not supposed to know what our targets were, that information was on tapes used by the guidance system and the targets were changed monthly.

But one night, being bored, we decided to try to find out. My guidance troops opened up part of the system and got a reading of the "alpha counts." which meant, "how far?" Knowing that, in miles, when I went home the next morning, I took some string and measured the distance (very roughly) on my world globe.

The nearest city I could find at that range was Minsk, but who knows? It could have been some other target hundreds of miles away or even thousands, at the same range but up in Siberia.

At any rate, we had lost control completely. We might as well have been trying to send messages to the coffee pot. There seemed to be nothing we, the instructor crew or even the two "observers" (another student Launch Officer and his instructor who were there) could do about it. The Northrop tech-reps were called, but they were home in bed. Well, there was one on duty, actually, and he did eventually arrive but he did not have a clue either. My missile chief, Johnson and his instructor were sent to the pad to unbolt the access panel and try to retard the throttle to idle manually. Their efforts showed on the engine rpm graph, but every time they pulled it back, it advanced itself right back up to 100%.

Now, this was all very exciting, but not catastrophic you might think, just let it go and eventually it will run itself out of fuel, right? But as with most things, there was a catch. The bird now thought it had been launched, you see, and was on its way to Minsk, or wherever. Most of us would not have bet on it even clearing the telephone poles on top of the hill beyond the pad, let alone the town of Caribou or the traffic pattern full of B-52s at Loring AFB 20 miles north. It was, as we say, a "somewhat flawed" weapon.

Even THAT would have been O.K. - it occasionally even happened inside the missile building during the countdown. There would be some loud CLANGS! that echoed up and down the length of the long building, because the "Jetavator Rings" (big inch-thick steel rings that fit around the outsides of the rocket booster nozzles that maybe influenced flight direction during the boosters' brief four seconds of thunderous life) had banged against their stops and the bird, thinking it had been launched, would start "flying" right there in the building.

If you chose to, or were paralyzed in horror, you could let it go on and after awhile see the elevons on the wings deflect as it tried to bank to avoid Newfoundland.

But it was not O.K. There was, if I can remember, about 200 gallons of fuel in a tank on the launcher to use while firing up the engine and finishing the final few minutes of the count – or deal with the unexpected, as we were now doing. Once that fuel ran out, the bird would start using internal fuel - fuel contained in the missile itself. No sweat, right? Plenty of fuel, thousands of gallons in there, right? Yeah, well here comes the catch: the fuel cells in the bird were bladder cells made of Neoprene. As the fuel was sucked out they needed to be pressurized to keep them from collapsing.

There was a little valve under the wing designed to open at launch and bring in air to pressurize the cells in flight - for all I know it was done by a string attached to the launcher. But the bird had not actually launched, so the valve had not opened and the engine was now gulping down fuel at full military power, which means FAST. If it ran out of what was on the launcher it would go into the internal fuel cells and start to suck them down. They would eventually collapse, maybe rupture and we would possibly have lots and LOTS of jet fuel spraying around with a red-hot J-57 jet engine in the middle of it! This is what I was overhearing from the instructors and tech reps behind me. They were pretty tense. You could tell.

Well, yes, it would have been bad. If we were unable to wrest away control of this stubborn, willful, self-destructive weapon and persuade it to again do our bidding, there might well have been a fire, a BIG fire on the launch pad and a million dollars (1959 dollars too) of USAF property up in black clouds of JP-4 and melted aluminum and grey paint. Then it would drift down on the farmers fields all about and become part of the potatoes eaten next year by, who knows? Maybe you and me. I imagine the potatoes of Aroostook County may go anywhere. Very inconvenient and possibly a lot of trouble for a number of people for a long time.

One of them being our beloved wing commander - a man who really did belong in New England – perhaps dressed all in black wearing a tall black hat, happily grilling witches.

I was just a dumb Lieutenant and a student, so I think I would have been "clean." But never knew. As a favorite saying went:

'To err is human. To forgive, divine - Neither of which is SAC policy."

Little matter - the chances of this event ruining any potential illustrious career for me in the USAF were pretty slim, in fact, that night might have been the exact moment when thoughts of returning to civilian life (blasphemy!) first began to trickle through my mind. This bird was not only unreliable, it was downright dangerous!

Well, as I said, it would have been bad but not an out and out catastrophe. As we realized later, hashing over the event in numerous bull sessions, it could have been far worse. Far, FAR worse.

If it had been a serious red-alert type test exercise, with simulated warhead, live boosters and igniters installed (a thing we never did - the brass had probably been advised not to try it - ever!), we would have been in an extremely touchy and dangerous condition - very scary to contemplate. If we had not been able to regain control and had that big fire and it had set off the boosters (and it would have), then we might very well have had a GREAT BIG fire.

In those days a vexing problem was that the propellant would not stick very well to the inner walls of the steel booster. Sulphur-glue ("Thiokol") was not yet in general use as a bonding agent. The huge flame the boosters produced was easily a 100 feet long and big chunks of burning propellant, some as big as your head (the showman said), great rolling balls of flaming nitrocellulose, were thrown out for hundreds of feet beyond that. Then, of course, if one or both of the boosters had come off the missile - and they would have - they would certainly have been doing cartwheels across the ground or sky - the biggest, brightest Catherine wheels you have ever seen or could imagine, setting on fire everything under them for hundreds of feet all around. Oh, it would have been spectacular.

All speculation.

But I had a more immediate concern. The tech reps had also noticed that the engine was over-speeding and beginning to get dangerously hot. The temperature was climbing and the speed surging from time to time on the graph. These were so-called "hot" engines too, already tweaked to run at higher than usual rpm’s. There was some talk about it possibly beginning to come unglued and start throwing turbine blades, an event apt to be pretty messy and very unhealthy for anyone located anywhere nearby.

I hadn't been saying much as I was the student - theoretically they all were wiser and more competent than I. But I had a man out there with his instructor up on the launcher about as near to the engine as you could possibly get without actually being inside it. This was a fact which, it seemed to me, everyone else had forgotten.

So, keenly aware of my lowly rank, I mentally walked out on a limb, picked up the microphone to the loudspeakers on the pad and told all personnel on the launch pad to abandon it at once. From the surges I was noticing I was afraid (in my ignorance) that the engine was about to come apart at any second!

Well, it all ended O.K. We suddenly regained control, (my electrician did something he called "flashing the field," which I envisioned as something like electro-shock therapy - LeMay knows that bird needed it). We retarded to idle and shut down, the bird was taken to the Engine-Run building for punishment and we all went to the mens room to clean up.

The funniest part of the story, I think, is that the loud speakers on the pads were LOUD speakers. Of course they had to be in order to be audible above the sound, up close, of a big, powerful jet engine, a J-57 at full power. It is hard to imagine that anything could be louder!

But there is: a Minuteman first stage rocket motor test witnessed from much, much too close, for instance. I am lucky to still be able to hear. But that is another story.

So my voice, from up on high on the tall poles, must have sounded like the Trump of Doom, seriously startling a pair of already somewhat tensed-up sergeants! They did not even give the so-called "Getaway Car" a second thought. They executed – "abandon ship" – at a dead run, straight into the drainage ditch around the pad, which was three-feet deep with ice-water. Johnson and his instructor came back into the building looking like drowned rats- and they were wearing full arctic flying suits (with now-politically-incorrect REAL wolf-fur hood fringes) at the time.

I never knew for sure, but I began to suspect that word of my concern for the troops when everyone else was thinking about the machinery may have gotten around. For what it is worth, some of them more or less abducted me one night and took me down to the NCO club to make me an "Honorary Member" some time later. They were pretty rough on me, but it is an honor I did and still do cherish.

A few of them gave me a little hazing for the language I had used - "Abandon the pad immediately!" I guess it sounded a little overly urgent at the time. Johnson and his instructor said they nearly drowned in the drainage ditch. What did they think the "Getaway Vehicle" parked right next to them was for?

Maybe considering aircraft fires they may have seen in the past, they thought that ice-water might be helpful. Good thought.

But I think the troops were just getting some fun out of giving pore old "Lt Fuzz" a hard time. Yeah, that was their nickname for me.

Gads! That strip - "Beetle Bailey" - is still going strong more than 50 years later!

I seemed to sense that I had some sort of reputation after that event.

Strangely, nothing in the "business world" later seemed very important to me after that interesting rainy night at Presque Isle.

Read other Cold War Warrior Articles