Air Force Bases

Titan II at Little Rock AFB

On June 22, 1960, the Air Force announced plans to establish 18 Titan II launch sites at a 5-year-old SAC bomber base located at Little Rock. Once a bombardment wing, the 308th was resurrected on April 1, 1962, with a new mission of manning the 18 Titan II silos under construction around Little Rock AFB, Arkansas. Components of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing consisted of the 373rd and 374th Strategic Missile Squadrons.

The Corps of Engineers, Little Rock District, conducted site selection. Silos for the 373rd SMS were located at Mount Vernon, Rosebud, Heber Springs, Albion, Center Hill, Antioch, Velvet Ridge, Judsonia, and Hamlet. Silos for the 374th SMS were located at Mount Vernon, Blackwell, Plummerville, St. Vincent, Springfield (2), Republican, Southside, Guy, and Quitman. The Corps of Engineers Ballistic Missile Construction Office (CEBMCO) based in Los Angeles managed the overall construction.

As with Titan II sites at Davis-Monthan and McConnell AFBs, CEBMCO implemented a three-phase process in an attempt to stem the problems associated with concurrency." Phase I at each site lasted approximately 8 months and included excavation and much of the reinforced concrete construction. Four companies based in Conway, Arkansas, won the bid to construct Phase I of the $80 million construction program. Groundbreaking at the first excavation site was held on January 9, 1961. In excavating the silos, the contractors under Army Corps of Engineer supervision, pioneered a new technique of perforating the silo's circumference to the full depth before chargehole drilling and shooting.

Phase II construction lasted approximately 39 weeks at each site and involved installing the mechanical, electrical, water, and other support systems needed to bring the silo to life.

During Phases I and II, there were 13 work stoppages having minimal impact on delaying the project. Four workers died on separate occasions due to work-related accidents.

Phase III involved the actual readying of the silos for activation. After arriving from the Martin-Marietta facility outside of Denver, the first Titan II ICBM was installed at launch site 373-4 located in White County near Albion on February 28, 1963.

For the next 2 months, the Site Activation Task Force prepared this site and the other silos for activation. Starting with the 373-4 launcher on May 16, 1963, Titan II silos entered alert status for the 308th SMW until December 31 when all 18 silos were declared on alert status. With Titan IIs at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, and McConnell AFB, Kansas, already on alert, Titan II activations around Little Rock completed the Titan II deployment program.

Crews from the 308th SMW held the distinction of being the first and last combat-ready missile crews to fire Titan IIs from Vandenberg AFB, California. Including the October 2, 1964, and June 27, 1976, launchings, Little Rock crews participated in 14 separate Vandenberg missile launchings.

On two occasions, tragedy marred the 308th SMW. On August 8,1965, at launch site 373-4, 53 contractor workers died in a flash fire while installing modifications to the launch silo. The cause of the accident was believed to be a rupture in a high-pressure line, which spewed hydraulic fluid on the floor. Ignited by sparks from a nearby welder, the resulting fire consumed most of the oxygen in the space, suffocating the workers. Details of this accident.

The second event, although it produced only one fatality, became more infamous because of the way the disaster occurred and the incredible damage inflicted on launcher 374-7 near Damascus. An unfortunate sequence of events began on September 18, 1980, with an incorrect maintenance procedure to add pressure to the second stage oxidizing tank. During an incorrect application of a 9-pound wrench socket to the pressure cap, the maintenance man accidentally dropped the socket, which fell onto the first stage and punctured the first stage fuel tank.

The fuel, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, is hypergolic, meaning contact with the oxidizing agent creates instant ignition. Eventually, the crew evacuated the launch control center as military and civilian response teams arrived to tackle the hazardous situation. Early in the morning of September 19, a two-man investigation team entered the silo. Because their vapor detectors indicated an explosive atmosphere, the two were ordered to evacuate.

At about 0300 hours, a tremendous explosion rocked the area. The initial explosion catapulted the 740-ton closure door away from the silo and ejected the second stage and its warhead out of the silo. Once clear of the silo, the second stage exploded. Twenty-one personnel in the immediate vicinity of the blast were injured. One member of the two-man silo reconnaissance team who had just emerged from the portal sustained injuries that proved fatal.

At daybreak, the Air Force retrieved the warhead and brought it within the confines of Little Rock AFB. During the recovery the Missile Wing Commander received strong support from other military units as well as Federal, state, and local officials. Arkansas's young governor, Bill Clinton, played an important role in overseeing the proper deployment of state emergency resources.

With the missile silo destroyed, launch complex 374-7 became the first Titan II silo to be deactivated. In October 1981, President Reagan announced that all Titan II sites would be deactivated by October 1, 1987, as part of a strategic modernization program. The deactivation of the rest of the 308th SMW silos began on April 24,1985. The wing completed deactivation on August 18, 1987.

Interestingly, the wing received some of its greatest accolades in the wake of the Damascus disaster. Perhaps realizing the public confidence had suffered a blow, wing personnel made a stronger effort to reach out to local communities. This effort won Air Force recognition in 1983, when the wing became the first missile wing ever to win the General Bruce K. Holloway humanitarian service trophy for the year 1982. The unit also earned the Omaha trophy for 1982, recognizing it as the best in SAC.

After inactivation, the Air Force removed reusable equipment and the contractor extracted metals and other salvageable components. The silos were then destroyed with explosives and filled in. An outdoor display was set up at Little Rock AFB to exhibit a reentry vehicle from a Titan II and explain the history of the 308th SMW.

For general information on Little Rock AFB look here.