Missile training at Sheppard crucial to Cold War

  • Published
  • By Dr. Dwight Tuttle
  • 82nd Training Wing History Office
A general consensus existed among a majority of senior Air Force staff that jet airplanes were the weapons of the future during the 1950's. 

Given the complex technological problems, such as guidance accuracy, thrust and re-entry to be overcome for long-range ballistic missiles, some scientists doubted their viability, comparing them to meteors that would disintegrate upon re-entering the atmosphere. With post war defense funding becoming increasingly tenuous, a conscious decision was made to focus on bombers currently in production such as the B-36 Peacekeeper and the B-52 Stratofortress, rather than futuristic long-range missiles, viewed by many within the Air Force as little more than "Buck Rogers devices." 

Because of continuing funding shortfalls, the National Security Council downgraded initial operational capability for the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles from "the earliest possible" deployment to "the earliest practicable" deployment. 

All this changed dramatically on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite into orbit, followed one month later by a second satellite--this one with a "live dog." 

The resulting sensational press coverage forced the Eisenhower administration to reverse itself and embark on a crash program to develop an operational force of guided missiles. Tremendous pressure was growing within Congress and the general public to redress the perceived strategic imbalance. 

Not since the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb had the United States faced such a challenge. A senior Department of Defense official touring a defense plant in San Diego in June 1958 observed, "we've got to get something big up."
Money would not be a consideration. 

For Sheppard, the hint that the installation was in for something big occurred in October 1955 when Air Training Command selected it as the prime center for all Atlas training. In January 1957, its training responsibilities expanded to include the Titan I, followed in late 1957 by both the Jupiter and Thor missiles. 

Construction began on an ultra-modern missile training complex Dec. 8, 1958. When completed, the 201,276-square-foot Kirby Hall - currently the home of the 882nd Training Group - was, for its time, a state-of-the-art missile training facility. 

Floor space in the bay area was specially designed to accommodate a 9,000 pound loader. To control temperature and humidity and reduce dust, the mammoth two-story building, with the exception of the front entrance, had no windows. Basic civil engineers kept air conditioning at 74 degrees; while the missile bay itself maintained a temperature of 70 degrees. 

Kirby Hall was specially wired for closed circuit television, with a master control room located next to a TV studio that produced training films used by operational locations, field training detachments and mobile training teams. 

The facility was enclosed by a 6-foot chain-linked fence and patrolled by roving guards with sentry dogs. Access to the training complex was limited to two gates: one on the southeast for pedestrian traffic open during peak training periods and a second structure on the southwest side used continuously by both pedestrians and bicycles. 

Security in the building was equally tight. All course documentation was kept in a safe with combination locks and had to be signed out. Supervisors, training cadre and instructors who worked in the building were forbidden to discuss their work when they went home at the end of a day. Nor could they tell those who signed their travel orders where they were going, what they were doing or when. 

Within these confines, multimillion dollar contracts were made over the phone. And it was from this new facility that the Air Force's ballistic missile training program took shape. 

With the Air Force gearing up for a massive research and development program to produce guided missiles, the training side of the equation had to be addressed. The Department of Missile Training was under great pressure to bring these new weapons systems on-line under the Department of Defense concurrency requirement. 

Concurrency was an attempt to reduce the time and costs of developing a missile weapon system by requiring that the hardware production, base construction to house missiles and training associated with the equipment all be completed at the same time, unlike the traditional process of first developing a weapons system and then tailoring training to the system. 

Under concurrency, training had to be developed in concert with its research and development. From a training view-point, this presented major problems due to expected design or operational changes with the rapidly evolving technology.
Bringing training online while coordinating with research and testing facilities resembled, according to one instructor, "the blind leading the blind" 

For one thing, no books had been written on the subject. In putting together training materials, sometimes the only thing available to instructors and training specialists were newspaper and magazine articles on missiles. 

The Department of Missile Training was dependent on engineers for technical training. The constant modification of hardware required constant updates of training materials base on changes in technical data and was a "thorn in the flesh" of training personnel. 

Among some of the other difficulties that instructors and supervisors encountered was obtaining trainers in a timely manner, especially since ATC was in competition with the Strategic Air Command for equipment. Conversely, Sheppard was constantly inundated with requests from SAC bases scheduled to deploy ICBMs and IRBMs for technical data on these systems. 

The Department of Guided Missiles responded by providing them with blue line or incomplete copies of technical orders to be used in training. Although technical orders ordinarily were not to be released for operational use without formal approval, given the criticality of missile deployment, this rule was waved and these blue line copies were often sent to the field. 

Nonetheless, despite these challenges, Sheppard training personnel succeeded in providing missile training for the Air Force at a critical time in this nation's history. Its success centered on four factors: virtually unlimited funding, solid leadership, a sound management program and close interaction between engineers developing prototype missiles and training officials at Sheppard. 

Building on these factors, Sheppard officials worked their way through the labyrinth of problems to bring missile training on-line. The greatest tribute to the quality of missile training was the fact that the systems performed flawlessly in their most essential role - deterrence.