An Epic Journey through Vandenberg ICBM Sites

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By Jonathan H

This is the Tunnel leading to the orginal (now exploded) Titan 1 Operational Systems Test Facility on Vandenberg

This is the Tunnel leading to the orginal (now exploded) Titan 1 Operational Systems Test Facility on Vandenberg

I see urban exploration as the hobby of appreciating things which, decades after their creation, still manage to make us open our jaws agape at the ingenuity of the human soul. Often, however, such ingenuity is misplaced in hubris. Vandenberg was a logical step at illustrating such schizophrenia of the technocratic imagination – for it was at Vandenberg that our love of all things Nuclear and Ballistic began to take its true Frankenstonian shape.

In January of 2008, soon after my first trip to Neverland, the planning phase for a new, riskier operation was already being laid.  In the months that followed January of ’08, Scott and I would make numerous  forays into  Neverland, but – as it often is with our trips – we invariably tried to find things to do while waiting for the sun to drop below the horizon.

The endangered snowy plover (courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The endangered snowy plover (courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

After all, a trip to Neverland during the day would have been significantly more risky, given the amount of gardeners and caretakers that circulated on the property. On the other hand, gallivanting around an active military base, we figured, would probably best be done during the day. It just so happened, Vandenberg Air Force Base (a mere 30 minutes away from Neverland) was a popular haunt for the rare Snowy Plover (a cause célèbre for all well-informed ornithologists). And the Snowy Plover would make the perfect alibi for the Urbex Desperadoes we had become. On our second trip to Neverland, we added a brief foray out to Vandenberg to our itinerary (really just to “scope” the situation).

Although the base itself is closed to the public, certain portions on the far South and Northeastern side are accessible. On the South side, a sleepy rail station of Surf serves as a bucolic, publicly accessible beach – albeit closely monitored by Vandenberg Security Forces.  In the case of the Northeast side of the base, the Marshalia Ranch golf course is sometimes – though not always – available for public use. My frequent drives out to the edges of Marshalia Ranch confirmed that it, too, is a popular hangout for the 30th Security Forces Squadron.

A member of the Vandenberg 30th Security Forces Squadron at a weightlifting competition at Venice Beach (courtesy Vandenberg AFB Office of Public Relations)

A member of the Vandenberg 30th Security Forces Squadron at a weightlifting competition at Venice Beach (courtesy Vandenberg AFB Office of Public Relations)

I knew that the consequences of exploring Vandenberg at night could be dire; the “SF,” as the security forces of Vandenberg are known, aren’t your typical slovenly security guards. These protectors of Freedom carry M4 assault rifles and – as you can see in the photo above – can easily crush people like me between their fingers. However, I had strong reason to consider risking it – stupid, maybe, but certainly an alluring prospect. Why, you ask?

Vandenberg, for those of you who don’t know, is a proverbial Disneyland for Cold War era missile defense sites. Atlas D, Atlas E, Atlas F, Titan I, Titan II, Minuteman, Peacekeeper, Thor — you name it and Vandenberg had it. It’s a massive base, 250 square miles in all. But in the vast 3,537,441 square miles that make up the United States land area, it is quite literally a crumb of the total cake. Soon, it had become an executive decision: Vandenberg was my next step in a longer journey and goal (but an increasingly spectral and dangerous journey).

If Vandenberg as a whole is the Disneyland of Missile Defense, then the Northern side of the base would be the equivalent of Frontierland – the place where all of it was born during the Missile Gold Rush of 1959. Most compelling to explorers of missile defense sites such as myself, Vandenberg North was also where the early missile programs died by the late 1960s. In the 1970s Vandenberg North has been abandoned in place of Vandenberg South. Today, the bones of the past at Vandenberg North are ripe for exploration. The old sites had four decades to decay and, in the interim, they had become something of a beautiful sight of their own merit.

But getting inside the perimeter of Vandenberg North isn’t as easy as it seems. Though we had our alibi (we had developed a new-found interest in bird watching), we still didn’t have a way in.  All the roads inside of the base (and thus to the front door of our underground missile sites) were completely sealed off by sentry stations and road blocks.  Security forces regularly patrolled the roads. The sky was filled with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) equipped with infrared cameras. Admittedly, part of what appealed to me was the risk. Some of my recent successful forays had given me a brazen confidence. As part of the MacGyver Generation, I also reveled in the potential of being part of an elite few who had managed to infiltrate an active base undetected. Stupid, yes, but certainly alluring.

Again, members of the Vandenberg 30th Security Forces Squadron - this time training in the field, instead of lifting weights.

Again, members of the Vandenberg 30th Security Forces Squadron - this time training in the field, instead of lifting weights.

The decision started relatively inauspiciously. It began as a terse exchange via email on January 15 of 2008, soon after the three of us had infiltrated and photographed the Sutter Buttes Titan I complex at Beale AFB:

STEPHEN: Are there any underground missile bases other than Titan and Atlas that are abandoned? Are there any Atlas silos that are available to explore [in California]? I heard the Lincoln Titan site is filled with water, anybody have confirmation?

SCOTT: I think the Atlas sites are mostly in the Midwest. There are always the Titan IIs, but those are definitely far, far away. There must be some Nikes around, though…

ME: The first Titan test silos are in the Vandy base, but those are on an active base, as you know.  I still believe they’re accessible, but the risk would be significant.

STEPHEN: Yeah, I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid.  Invading an active base is beyond stupid.  There might be the chance of ‘official’ access to Vandenberg.  Jon, you’re a student at a reputable university who could make a request for access that might actually be listened to.  Or we could just go to the museum, but I hate museums. Was the minuteman missile stored in a silo?

ME: Well the thing about Vandy is that it’s separated into two sectors — the active part, and the semi-abandoned part.  The semi-abandoned part is apparently a popular haunt of bird-watchers, and parts (but not the missile base parts) are open to the public…

STEPHEN: Hey guys, I’m also a devoted bird watcher intent on seeing the silo parakeet in its natural habitat!  Let’s go ‘bird-watching’ on Vandy and track the rarely seen species into its underground lair! Jon, I know you’ve been looking at Vandy.  We’ll have to talk about this on our drive down to Jacko’s place (Neverland).  What’s our schedule by the way?  I need to start planning.

By February 29th, we found ourselves in an overflow parking lot near the Marshalia Ranch golf course. Air Force brass teed off within a few hundred feet of us. Stephen, in his Jeep, turned off the road and towards a pre-designated parking space. We began walking towards our target – the defunct Operational Systems Test Facility, which was the first underground missile base in the United States.

A map of the Operational Systems Test Facility - our first target.

A map of the Operational Systems Test Facility - our first target.

Our “scoping” trip soon turned into a pact to give it a go if we felt safe to do so. We walked within the perimeter of the base and found ourselves within 100 yards of the OSTF. The three of us knew the smell of an abandoned Titan base well. The smell of Titan decay lingers in the surrounding air and – for me – it had slowly become something of an evocative and irresistible scent (what can I say, I’m weird).

As we ducked under the bushes in broad daylight we conferred over the final plans for the last leg towards the silo.  That’s when we saw a white sedan barreling down the road. Sure enough, it was an SF patrol, and he seemed to have known we were there. We saw the SF pull on to a dirt road that led to our trail. Immediately, we turned around and started running back toward Stephen’s Jeep.

Apparently, Vandenberg was teeming with patrols during the day, and a day trip would be impossible. Any passing car could easily evince us from the road that was directly in the path towards the OSTF. We breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at the Jeep. It was then that we decided any future trip would need to be done at night. We also knew, should we be caught at night, the consequences would be exponentially more severe. At night, we couldn’t pose as avid ornithologists. If caught at night, we would become potential terrorist suspects.

Stephen didn’t show for the second trip to Vandenberg, but we found an able stand-in for him in Aaron. We arrived at Marshalia Ranch around dusk and parked in the overflow lot. The three of us hopped out of the truck and began the hump over to the OSTF – just as we had on our first trip. All of us agreed to keep our flashlights off until we were inside the missile facility. The moon had served as an excellent source of low-level illumination – and, together, we discussed what the protocol would be, should another SF be hot on our trail.

Then it came – this time as a white SUV speeding down the paved road that separated us from the OSTF. Aaron, Scott, and I watched the headlights approach our crossing point. We barely had enough time to drop to the ground and lay low. The car passed, and we continued across the paved road, looking like nimble roadrunners on a desert stretch of asphalt at night. Once across the road, we were separated from the OSTF only by a few hundred feet and a rusty chain-link fence. We squeezed through what seemed like a miniscule hole in the fence and began poking around the remnants of the silo, which had gone through its own travails to become what it was when we saw it.

On Saturday evening, 3 December 1960, a full rehearsal short of actual launch was being conducted by Robert Rhodus, the Martin Company OSTF test conductor. It was the ninth attempt – all of the other attempts had failed due to minor equipment malfunctions. The missile was loaded with liquid oxygen, it was raised to the surface from the silo, and the countdown began. The test was a success, and everyone involved was relieved of their duties. The missile began to be lowered back into the silo, where the propellant probe crew was tasked with reconnecting the hose to offload the oxidizer, but something went horribly wrong.

According to the account of retired USAF CMSGT Les Lawson, relayed to me via email, the elevator was lowered using the “down fast circuit,” instead of the “down slow” mode (which was required for a fully fueled missile). Upon realizing he had done this, the operator quickly switched the mode to down slow and the system responded by braking suddenly.

“The sudden forces on the platform caused the entire support structure to lurch,” Said Lawson, “The hydraulic reservoir located on the upper side of the silo tilted enough to spill hydraulic fluid onto the braking system.” From there, the entire braking system was compromised and the missile began an uncontrollable descent to the bottom of the silo, where LOX and RP1 mixed, causing a massive explosion.

Rhodus watched the entire event transpire from a television screen, about 1/4-mile away, and he “realized with some trepidation that, unlike the buried operational control centers, the room he was in had only 12 inches of dirt on top, not much protection from the tons of concrete that were raining down all around. He also realized it was far too late to run.” Nearby airmen were watching the events on television too – and the SLTF crew, not more than 1,200 feet directly west of the OSTF, saw the “entire elevator assembly, known as the crib, and missile launcher, a total of 160 tons of structural steel, come out of the silo, tumbling up out of the searchlight beams ‘in slow motion.’” In the years that followed, enormous chunks of concrete could be seen on the hills near the Titan I facility, and a complete reference system gyro was found on the Marshalia Ranch Golf Course, more than a mile away from the blast site.

The exploding remnants of the Operational System Test Facility. The 160-ton steel crib assembly lurched out of the silo. On our journey, nothing remained of the crib (which was likely scrapped), but the silo was still there.

The exploding remnants of the Operational System Test Facility. The 160-ton steel crib assembly lurched out of the silo. On our journey, nothing remained of the crib (which was likely scrapped), but the silo was still there.

Scott, Aaron, and I stood hundreds of feet above the old superstructure of the silo, and looked deep down into the abyss of the disaster area. Over the years, the exploded cylinder had filled with water – and that water had taken on an almost radioactive-looking green appearance, likely from algae that blossomed prodigiously within the stagnant pool. Dead animals were floating in the water. Across the silo, the equipment and fueling terminals stood. Their reinforced capstones made the gigantic, exposed cylinders look like the rooks of medieval castles.

The remnants of the equipment terminal, nearby the OSTF launch assembly. Though this particular silo didn't sustain quite as much damage, its cap was thrown high into the sky, leaving its top exposed to the elements.

The remnants of the equipment terminal, nearby the OSTF launch assembly. Though this particular silo didn't sustain quite as much damage, its cap was thrown high into the sky, leaving its top exposed to the elements.

It was the most incredible man-made structure I had ever seen in my life. I never had a true sense of the massive scale of a Titan silo until I saw it as I did that night – fully exposed from the outside, maimed by a massive explosion, and slowly returning to the nature it had once usurped.

The three of us squeezed through the window of an above-ground, derelict building. We found old technical specs and blueprints related to the OSTF program. In a back corner of the building, a cavernous passageway led to rooms that went underground. Scott and I fumbled across holes in the floor that once held data cables. We found an old HVAC system and continued through a T-junction to corrugated steel tube that resembled the Titan tunnels at the Sutter Butte site in Northern California (which we had explored just months earlier). The air in that tunnel was filled with the electricity of discovery and our hearts were racing in anticipation.

We pushed aside a blast door and looked down towards an antenna silo – fully intact and carrying a pristine and authentic Titan 1 radome antenna, complete with a canvas inflatable sphere.  This was what the writer of “Titan 1 Epitaph,” whom I’ve interviewed in the past , calls “a very complex system indeed… a radio-inertial missile guidance and tracking package representing, at the time, some of the very latest in technology and miniaturization in solid state electronics.” It was the full system designed by Bell Laboratories and a priceless relic that played a pivotal role in American history. The Western Electric Missile Guidance system (known as an AN/GRW-5 by technocrats) was so important that Titan bases contained two of them for redundancy – one of which could not be raised above-ground unless the other was lowered below-ground.

The schematic for the VAFB OSTF antenna terminal. Because this was a testing phase terminal, it wasn't designed in the same way that all other Titan 1 base antennae were configured. This is a truly one-of-a-kind design.

The schematic for the VAFB OSTF antenna terminal. Because this was a testing phase terminal, it wasn't designed in the same way that all other Titan 1 base antennae were configured. This is a truly one-of-a-kind design.

The pristine inflatable canvas radome of the Titan 1 antenna. I haven't seen anything in a Titan base as well preserved as this was.

The pristine inflatable canvas radome of the Titan 1 antenna. I haven't seen anything in a Titan base as well preserved as this was.

Scott and I looked at each other. We had become so accustomed to whispering, that – at first – we hesitated to let out a sound. Then, in a burst of excitement, we hollered in ecstatic glory. A chest bump later, and a few words of congratulation was all it took. We had just seen what few civilians had been privileged to see, and it was sitting there for us to photograph and share with the world. We immediately broke out our camera packs and began a methodical documentation of the two underground antenna silos.

From the bottom of the OSTF antenna terminal, looking up.

From the bottom of the OSTF antenna terminal, looking up.

The night eventually came to an end, and by dawn we were walking on the public road to our vehicle. We drove 15 miles to an abandoned diatomite mine and I laid my sleeping bag down to rest in the powdery mine tailings. The trip was a success, but Scott and I both knew that it wouldn’t be our last trip to Vandenberg…

It didn’t take long for us to return to Vandenberg – and this time it was decided that we would spend the entire weekend on the base – dwelling during the day underground, and returning topside at night to explore complexes and traverse to other sites.  Our first destination was the Atlas F, which is similar to a Titan II base in layout and configuration.  Upon exploring the Atlas F, we would head south to a grouping of various Atlas D and E pads, both of which had very little in the way of underground space but plenty of interesting accoutrements and panels to shoot.

Our visit to the Atlas F was a hurried attempt with a set time limit.  Our entire route was comprised entirely of overland walking, across miles and miles of scrub, ice plant, and sandy dunes.  Both of us were well aware of the impending sunrise; if we were to find ourselves out of range of a sufficient place of cover by daylight, then we could potentially be seen by patrolling SF. This was compounded by the fact that very little shrubbery existed for such a purpose – so the abandoned missile complexes themselves were our only hope of hiding. The nearest Atlas E was over a mile-and-a-half away and it was 4 A.M. by the time we exited the Atlas F blast door.

About a 1/2-mile away from the Atlas F, on our way to a place of cover, Scott looked over at me and his eyes widened. “Where is your tripod?,” he queried. I looked down and noticed it was gone. I left it at the Atlas F. It was 4:30, and I would lose about 30 minutes going back to get it. Scott laid down in the sand in exasperation, and I began my jog back to retrieve the tripod. I returned about 30 minutes later. Morning birds began making their sounds and the early signs of dawn appeared far across the Casmalia Mountains in the horizon. Our time was running short, and in hushed whispers of urgency we both soon became out of breath.

The next hour was a true race against time. On the route to our next stop, there were numerous active buildings that dotted the Vandenberg landscape. The fact was: Vandenberg North was not truly “abandoned.” Parts of the North are occupied by active Minuteman complexes, and Reagan had instituted a rail-based, garrison missile defense system in the 80s known as the Peacekeeper program.  These nuclear warheads were partly based in Vandenberg, and later became active at Mountain Home AFB in Wyoming.

A schematic of a peacekeeper missile being loaded into its launch tube {click for a larger view}.

A schematic of a peacekeeper missile being loaded into its launch tube {click for a larger view}.

Peacekeepers were underground missiles, much like Titans… but on steroids. Each of these solid-fuel missiles could carry 10 REVs (re-entry vehicles), and each REV was capable of carrying a MK 21 nuclear payload. Vandenberg North was pockmarked with underground bunkers that protected the Peacekeeper missiles on rail cars. When the boxcars were not being used, they were stored in the super-hardened bunkers. Buildings with electricity on Vandenberg North were likely related to this program – even though the Peacekeeper program was fully deactivated by 2003. Whether or not these buildings contained anything of strategic importance, Scott, nor I would never truly know. Looking at the siren-like warning lights on the building, we knew that we didn’t wish to find out, so we avoided these buildings as much as possible (unavoidably getting as close as 100 feet away in a few instances).

Our pace was quickening and the corona of the sun was appearing over the tips of the mountains in the distance. We were running out of time. A truck drove up to one of the active buildings behind us; if he had looked in our direction, it was certain he would have seen us. Partly to hide from the truck, Scott and I found an old, overgrown road, which I soon recognized from my mental map of the base. We were close to our destination, and a few minutes later we found ourselves crawling under a rusty fence (one of many rusty fences in this epic journey). We would lay low for a few hours while exploring the Atlas E, take a quick nap, and then continue to the most harrowing leg of the hike.

Sleeping at the Atlas E site was a welcome reprieve. When one is running on adrenaline, one’s bodily functions are in overdrive. The heart rate stays at a steady high. Sweating is more frequent, and body movements are twitchy and unpredictable. Scott and I had been continuously operating on adrenaline all night. When we reached the hard asphalt floor of the well-hidden Atlas E complex, it could have just as well been a billowing bed, filled with perfectly fluffed down pillows. I lay down and was asleep within seconds; I happened to choose a location that was almost directly under what would have once been an 82.5-foot Atlas E Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. I can honestly say, now, that the best nap I’ve ever had was directly below the domain of a nuclear missile – and it’s strange to say this, but I felt safe. I awoke to the sound of a Blackhawk helicopter that was fanning the base in patrol. Scott was taking a picture of me splayed on the floor with his cell phone. We got to our feet and began the portion of the trip that would be most challenging.

Vandenberg North is cut off from Vandenberg South by an impenetrable blanket of vegetation that follows the windy course of San Antonio Creek. There is no possible route across the water other than two dangerous and highly visible crossings. On our way in, we chose the railroad crossing to reach the historic 576th Strategic Missile Squadron – an area rife with both Titan II and Atlas D missile complexes. This required walking a frequently traveled Amtrak railroad trestle hundreds of feet above the canyon. We would return to our vehicle through a different route (which I’ll describe later).

A satellite view of the abandoned bases we chose to explore during our 36-hour overland journey. The red warning triangles were items I marked on the map to avoid - knowing that they might potentially be active Peacekeeper garrison facilities.

A satellite view of the abandoned bases we chose to explore during our 36-hour overland journey. The red warning triangles were items I marked on the map to avoid - knowing that they might potentially be active Peacekeeper garrison facilities.

After crossing the trestle with little trouble (but a mere minutes before another Amtrak train had careened across the canyon), Scott and I set our sights on our first Titan II. We hopped another rusty fence (see a theme here?) and surveyed the topside conditions for a good entry route. Scott found an emergency exit and began climbing down.

“Oh Shit!!!!” Scott whispered loudly. Immediately after I heard him, a bat swirled around his head, coming from deep within the emergency exit. It flew around Scott’s face and exited the ladder-way. Scott dropped a small rock down the tube to ensure that any bats made their way out and then headed down the ladder. The space of the ladder, approximately 24 inches in diameter, was much too small for me to wear my backpack, so I strapped it in front of me and slowly descended about 100 feet to the bottom of the underground Titan II Control Dome. With a full respirator attached to my face, I felt like an astronaut, boldly stepping into the domain of an extraterrestrial spaceship. The view was incredible. Control panels and ceiling panels were haphazardly strewn across the floor. Rust mixed with benzene – colors that are so unnatural, they make the environment seem more artificial than anything I’d seen in my life.

Inside a Titan II control dome at Vandenberg AFB

Inside a Titan II control dome at Vandenberg AFB

Surely everything in the Titan II control domain was artificial, but one could see constant evidence of the intrusion of nature all around: Bats roosting in a place you couldn’t think anything living could survive in, water seeping , cave crickets searching for anything to dine on.  It was beyond surreal. It was unreal. The latest graffiti in the tunnel, potentially from other military men who had spent their R&R time on the base in the best way possible, dated back to the 1970s. Graffiti, overall, was relatively sparse – a welcome surprise, because all of the past silos I had explored in Colorado and Northern California came littered with a liberal smattering of monikers from multiple generations of explorers.

Like we had done in the other complexes, Scott and I busted out our equipment and began the tough work of illuminating our scenes. We snapped a few photos in the access tunnel and walked towards the acoustically designed Titan II silo.

Seeing the interior of a Titan II silo is a rare gift. Under the terms of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) with the U.S.S.R., most Titan II silos were deliberately destroyed in the mid-1980s. Of the 54 Titan II bases built in the U.S., only a few silos remain unmolested. As far as I know, there is only one original Titan II silo that has its launch doors completely open to the elements – and we were at it. This provided an unprecedented opportunity to photograph the silo illuminated by natural moonlight – both from the inside and outside. We were hesitant to leave, but we knew that our time was running short, so we walked another 1/2-mile to our final site and the most historically compelling: The 576th SMS Atlas D trio.

The Titan II silo from above - fully exposed to the sky, and illuminated by a combination of the moon and a handheld flashlight.

The Titan II silo from above - fully exposed to the sky, and illuminated by a combination of the moon and a handheld flashlight.

The 576th Squadron of Atlas D’s comprises three fully intact bases, filled to the brim with original equipment, cables, and artifacts. There was so much to see that we decided on only one complex in the interest of time. We selected the only Atlas D site on the base with its original Gantry, which was easy to spot in the midnight sky. Much like the irresistible scent of a Titan missile, this symbol of our desire had become its own navigation beacon. With our eyes pointed towards the gantry, we walked in a beeline from 395-B (the Titan II that had just de-virginized us). During this walk, I had to stop to really look. The 576th Squadron is on a bluff overlooking the entire Northern Portion of the base.  I used a brief break in our walk to look out towards the moonlit landscape, and to take note of our accomplishments.

The gantry of the Atlas D ICBM at Vandenberg AFB {click for larger view}

The gantry of the Atlas D ICBM at Vandenberg AFB {click for larger view}

From my vantage, I saw it all – the Atlas F was more than five miles as the crow flies. With the full moon at its zenith, things that were miles away from that bluff were eerily easy to see – the blinking green status lights of the active Peacekeeper buildings, the shadowy form of the Atlas E with its diagonally descending personnel tunnel, the distant lights of active Minuteman bases. All of it seemed like a ghostly dream – much like those dreams you wake from, only to remember the most prosaic of details. And yet, seeing it all – even while actively involved in the process of exploration – immediately made me miss the trip.  I knew that we had about 8 hours until it was completely over, and I soon regretted the notion of leaving this strange post-atomic, no-man’s land.

“Ready to move?” Scott chimed in. He had just finished a granola bar, while I polished off my final orange. Even if I wanted to stay an extra day, I knew it meant going without food or water – a prospect that didn’t seem worth the extra time on base after the first bout of hunger set in.

We arrived at the Atlas D, and it was everything we had hoped it would be: Launch consoles; tanks of liquid nitrogen; lines connecting rocket fuel through snakelike arrangements underground; vast, lengthy tunnels that carried communication and power cables across the complex. It was a beautiful capstone to a trip steeped in visual splendor – and a sobering monument to the military industrial complex – something that even Mercury could even look down upon from the skies of the Roman gods and admire from afar.

Despite how much I bungled and bombasted my way through barriers and sentries in subsequent explorations, nothing could quite match the experience I had with Scott during those fidgety 36 hours. Neverland was only the first notch on a long-lasting relationship with pushing the limits; Vandenberg was a chunk. Soon, I would find myself in an abandoned skyscraper worth $118 million. My ethos would evolve even further when I found myself in a steel factory in Detroit, which was purportedly protected by a shotgun wielding wacko (who actually turned out to be a nice guy). But Vandenberg topped them all.

Scott and I nearly lost each other, deep in the base at 3 A.M. that night. Our phones weren’t working and we had separated somewhere along an overland shortcut to the bridge that crossed San Carlos Creek. For 20 minutes, I frantically tried dialing until my phone’s battery was near death. I rolled through chaparral and descried El Rancho Road (our escape route home) from the top of the bluff.

Down at a turnoff on the side of the road I saw Scott’s dark, pensive frame. We met at the bottom of the bluff and planned the final and most dangerous portion of our epic trip. SF vehicles were rolling back and forth across the bridge. The bridge itself, which was a skyway traversing the entire San Carlos Creek wetland, was much longer than we had imagined while looking at the satellite images.

Considering the frequency with which patrol cars traveled back and forth across the bridge, I indicated to Scott that we could probably make it about halfway across the 300-yard bridge before an SF vehicle would arrive – upon which we would have no place to hide. Scott concurred. The pinch was in, and we had no way out. We briefly considered going back to the railroad trestle, but that would have meant two more days of overland hiking – without food or water. We decided it prudent to at least walk to the bridge to see if there was a possible way across by going under it.

“Look,” I whispered, pointing to the utility pipes hidden behind the cement guardrails on each side of the bridge. “I think we can bail over the side and lay low until the car passes.” We tested the load carrying capacity of the pipes by going on them together. They held our weight. We had to start soon. It was almost dawn, so we both grabbed our gear and began running across the gray, cement skyway. We were lucky, at least until the final 100 yards. It was then that Scott saw the headlights of a distant SF. We swiftly hopped over the side barrier and lay on the utility pipes. The SF passed and we returned to the Skyway, on to our freedom.

We arrived at the Marshalia Ranch Golf Course a full 36 hours after we began our trip. We had traversed twice over chasms; we had seen the entire nuclear smorgasbord of Cold War America; we had evaded a half-dozen SF patrol cars; and every bone in our body ached from 16 miles of hiking on adrenaline. It was finally over.

Part of the guidance system for the Titan 1 base adjoining the OSTF.

Part of the guidance system for the Titan 1 base adjoining the OSTF.

I shook Scott’s hand in congratulations and started my long drive home. Halfway up Highway-101 (the road that had so often been my thoroughfare of adventure) I realized that the jacket pocket in which I had stashed my memory card had a hole in it. Every photo was lost. The trip, however, was not entirely lost. I wrote about it because I wanted to remind myself that those pictures aren’t the only thing that matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words – well, then – this particular collection of words is worth at least four.

Perhaps I look at it all so optimistically because of the events that transpired immediately after my return. Often, the biggest blessings come after a difficult journey. I arrived home that evening to discover that my father had a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage. I thought the very worst and threw on a new pair of clothes to fly up to Portland, Oregon. That week I spent in a hospital waiting room was the worst week of my life; by the time I left the hospital, however, it had become the best. My father had fully recovered from something that originally gave him a 10% chance of surviving. It seemed fitting that I emerged from a landscape of Cold, deathly war only to have it conclude in a true story of survival and miracles.

Additional Information

Pete’s description of the Titan 1 radio guidance system

Complete coordinates and details of all abandoned Vandenberg facilities

41 comments on “An Epic Journey through Vandenberg ICBM Sites

  1. Wow Jon, this was truly an incredible read! I wish I could write like this! Your words are so powerful and I truly enjoyed every sentence. It was nice to hear a recount of the trip in such detail. I thank you for allowing me to be a part of your later adventures. I really did have an unforgettable experience out there with you boys.

  2. Very well documented, Jon…what a disaster with your memory card though. Guess that means you’ll have to return and do it all again! I’d love to fly out there and join you…

    NMK

  3. Andy Frazer on said:

    Jon,

    An amazing story. Sounds like it was a great adventure. I don’t know anyone other than the two of you who could have pulled this off. You two both have balls of steel.

    Sorry about your memory card (is that why you brought Scott along? as a backup?), and I’m glad to hear that your dad recovered.

    Andy

  4. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks all! Andy: Scott and I have usually worked pretty well together as a team. Truth is: I don’t think I could have had the balls to do it myself – and Scott is one of a few shooters I know whom I would trust first time around on any super risky endeavor. I think part of what emboldens us is the fact that we’re all in on it together. It makes crossing that line all the more easy.

  5. Scott Haefner on said:

    Excellent recount of our adventures out there…it even had me in suspense! Very eloquently written as usual.

    I remember you calling me on the 101 on your way home telling me about your Dad and lost memory card. I felt terrible for you. Glad everything ended well though…your Dad’s ok and you were able to resoot most of the shots on a later trip.

  6. Randy Bracken, Captain, USAF on said:

    The 30th SFS has your camera’s memory card. Come & get it!

  7. jtcolfax on said:

    Wow….that was fast. This harmless journey of yours was indeed riveting reading.

  8. Craig Moyer on said:

    Excellent write up, and truely impressive adventure.

    I hope the post by Randy Bracken is true!

  9. imprezawrxsti on said:

    thug life, man. you really outdid yourself on this one. hopefully Capt. Bracken will be congratulating your photographic prowess rather than something less enjoyable.

    maybe he wants to recruit you for the NSA?

  10. ssuraincloud on said:

    As always your work depicts lavishly realized images of fascinating relics. The awe-inspiring sights are truly recounted by your artfully designed imagery of the written word. This was only a taste on a world of discarded infrastructure that you and only a few others have enjoyed. I can’t wait to hear of your next adventure. Bravo!

  11. Stephen Freskos on said:

    Did you spot the silo canary? You have such a way with words, Jon, and always impress me with your writing. I’m glad y’all went…and I’m glad I stayed home!
    -S

  12. Alan Grinberg on said:

    Great adventure, fantastic photos, and a superb account.

  13. Joe Reed on said:

    Wow, what a read! Great story about a truly epic adventure. Thanks for sharing.

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  15. Jon, you’re right, this one is now up there with the great modern UE legends. Riveting read, and if you ever tire of ‘splorin’ you could become a ‘fiction’ writer for sure. I’ll take your first copy of your first book! FWIW I lost, 15 rolls of 120, 10 of 135 and my truck keys when I left Beth so I know a little about how it feels to lose images. The destination will stay with you and that can’t be taken away, ever. Some truly “amazing deeds and dudes”

    best, jannx
    Bouvet Island

  16. E Andrews on said:

    I’m sure Air Force OSI would be interested in talking to you about your adventure.

  17. I loved reading this story. Your pictures and the story were amazing.

  18. I knew a contractor who was responsible for demoing several of the silos a few years back. He had an interesting story about how they were working on the outside of an empty building in the middle of the base, not much around. A bus drove up, about 20 people got out, went into the building and didn’t come out for 8 hours. It was the entry way to something underground.

  19. G. Greenlee on said:

    When I was about 20 years old I worked for a salvage contractor on those silos. I would ride a crane lowered platform 220 feet to the bottom of the silo every day. I would cut up pieces of metal and attach them to a crane cable to be hoisted out. Sometimes large pieces of metal would break loose as they were hoisting the metal out – I would have to run for cover on the bottom of the silo. You could here the air rushing as the metal impacted the silo floor – the sound and vibration was incredible. Many times I stood on the edge of the silo all day with no safety harness giving crane signals from the guys on the silo floor to the crane operator. No we did not even have radios. My self and about 4 other co workers were asked to try and burn out a lot of the insulation that was used in the bottom of the silos. So we spend several saturday nights droping 50 gallon drums of fuel 200 feet to the silo floor – the explosion was incredible and many times a gigantic smoke ring would come up out of the silo. One day some base safety people happened by and were appalled at the danger we were exposed to and shut us down – I was out of a job but looking back I am thankful that happened. I had dreams for years of falling into that silo…..

  20. I explored these silos in the mid 70’s.
    My travels where about the same as the writers of this article only much earlier.
    As I had seen just about everything you have described or pictured here. I spent
    many exploration campaigns in my teens as an Air Force dependant traveling the tunnels with friends. We had been chased many times by the Air police and by never getting caught just added to the excitement. Little did I know that after I returned from the Navy that I would work the Titan program for twenty years. Over the years I have been a part of the launch team with over thirty launches to my credit. During my employ I met and worked with one of the technicians that was in the tunnel the night of the Titan explosion, as the blast door closed behind him. It’s a long story I can’t tell here. He was hospitalized, lost some hearing, knocked out for several days etc… Another tech I worked with was also on the crew of the exploded Titan but was on the off shift that night. He saw the explosion from Santa Maria and said it looked like the whole base wad blown up. He could see a huge fire ball and smoke everywhere. He said he thought he lost all of his friends, finding out latter there was no loss of life. They both have about twenty years on me and are now retired. Some of the locations you pictured have since been back filled with dirt. A possible result of this article. Not a bad thing though this was a very hazardous area. I can say with all honesty that even after all the launches I’ve experienced. My most memorable days at the rocket ranch where my teen years exploring silos. A place I should not have been. A great experience only a few have had. I’m real glad to have done it. Thanks for printing your story lots of fun to read.

  21. Jeremy on said:

    thanks so much for sharing. unlike other ue sites(UER :/) were you have to be a “full member” to see anything interesting. you are a saint especially since you did something alot more risky then any of them ever did and were willing to share it with us. Thanks again ;)

  22. Pete Taylor on said:

    Gentlemen,
    I “found” your VAFB missile site story very interesting, since I have been to just about every site at the base. I was stationed at VAFB, 1962 to 65 and was directly involved in several launches and of course saw most of the rest. Since my squadron, 51st MMS, assembled and installed[mated]most of the Thor, Atlas, Titan I&II and Minuteman I&II, Reentry Vehicles[non-functional warheads]we had access to every site.I must state that during that time period[1960\'s]it was the peak of missile launches, so we had a front row seat[well within the hazzard zones]a matter of yards, not miles !
    The 51stMMS Squadrons, has held many of their reunions at VAFB, so I have been back many times.I sent a week on the base in 2000, taking photos of all the old sites, from the old Thor pads[SLC-10area]to Peacekeeper site LF-05, including all the stops in between. Check out the wepsite 51st MMS and click on “around the base”. Since that time, I have continued to conduct flashlight tours
    for former and current military personnel, during our reunions.I read your story with interest, because, few people realize how important these sites were and the history that they contain.Many very important launches, went out of those silos. I was able to visit with approval and had the ability to see a photograph during the day.But, as you know once your inside it is very dark, I could feel the ghosts of the old USAF crews, still inside, I imagine that few people have experienced that.

  23. mark hesselgreaves on said:

    That really was an eppic trip; now you’ll have to go back and find that memory card tho! lol.
    Good news about your dad too, i’m glad he pulled through.
    Sadly there arent many(any?) of these sites in the UK, but reading this really makes up for that! well done my friend!

  24. Robert Allen Bernhardt on said:

    Ran across your pictures of Vandenberg AFB last night(Dec 19, 2010) I was stationed at Vandiland for two years as a Teletype Crypto Tech in Building 10525 next to ONE STRAD. During those two years I got to travel all over those 98,400 Acres of Skateland. I thought I knew where alot of things were out there at Vandiland but I guess not. So how did you get onto Vandenberg to get these good pictures? The destroyed Titan II Silo had a Nick Name called “Smokin Joe”. Story I heard when I was out there is that the explosion was so powerful that it blew cement as far away as the Tracking Station. A few years ago I knew a guy whose dad got out of the area of that silo moments before the explosion. The abandoned Titan Silo I frequented is at 34°46’57.03″N 120°36’25.97″W, hell of deep hole that Silo is. Would be great to get a about three days to visit and scout out Vandenberg again. But I doubt civilians would get that chance. And yes, everywhere I went on Vandenberg I got the distinct feeling of “Cold War”,

  25. James Johnson on said:

    Accident, chance, luck, fluke, twist of fate, quirk, happenstance. Not sure which applies here, let me explain.
    May 3, 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the free worlds first launch of an ICBM (Titan I) from an underground silo (SLTF) at Vandenberg, AFB, where I worked throughout the program. Upon successful conclusion of SLTF (I / we) (launch crew) continued on with the Titan II weapon system development and turnkey to USAF (SAC), where I worked at site C and later at site B.
    I stumbled upon your web site while checking the web to see if anyone was commemorate the 50th anniversary of SLTF. The success at SLTF was a milestone in our country’s ICBM programs and was a major factor in winning the Cold War.
    Now to further complicate the happenstance, your article on the demise of the Farwell Building in Detroit, Michigan takes me back to my part time job while in High School. Your pictures at Vandenberg, Titan II B site, I was crew on the first launch.
    OSTF tunnel, I was there. OSTF blew on a Saturday evening, no one was working at our site (SLTF) except the guy at the guard shack. Stuff rained down, no one was hurt. The OSTF Silo cove doors were about 9ft thick steel/concrete. The biggest piece of door found, a man could pick-up. One of the guys from our site was having dinner at Pismo Beach, and heard/felt the blast from OSTF.
    In conclusion, just thought you would be interested in these notes. Keep up the good work. Regards, J.Johnson

    .

  26. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Hi James,
    Thanks for the memories. I’m always enthralled to hear the stories of past men who served as these locations. I’m interested in hearing about your high school job at Farwell Building, and also more about your times at Vandenberg. Feel free to add more if you have the time. Glad to hear from you!

  27. James Johnson on said:

    Farwell Building
    The Farwell Bldg. was home to my Brother-in-law’s Family’s Business, “Central Bible Depot“, a religious book, bible and church material store. My brother-in-law, Kenneth McLean, managed the store for his mother, Ken’s father started the store back in the nineteen-thirties and was a preacher in Detroit for many years. When the father died around 1952, Ken was thrust into the job of continuing the business until 1959 when they sold it. The store was one of two Christian, Protestant book stores serving greater Detroit throughout that period. The store was located on the 3rd or 4th floor and I recall Jonny was the elevator operator for all those years. I helped out after school and whenever Ken asked. The Farwell Bldg is on Griswold Street, one block from Woodward Ave (the main drag) of Downtown Detroit (which was a vibrant city in those days) and about 5 blocks from the main Post Office where I took care of packages / shipping. The store was pretty much a thriving business when Ken took it over, except for the fact that his father had been giving free materials to any poor churches that were unable to pay. In any event Ken’s heart wasn’t in the place and thus they sold it and moved on.

  28. StephenP on said:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Did you make this trip more than once? A similar set of pictures, visiting the same sites can be found at Amy Heiden’s web site: http://www.amyheiden.com/gallery/abandoned-cold-war. Her images were taken on April 11, 2009. So it seems even more ornithologists slipped through the hands of the ‘SF’?

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  30. marco t on said:

    hello my name is marco i am from tucson az in tucson we have 18 Titan II bases here all but one is abandoned the one is a museum
    i have bin to all 18 sites in tucson i have made my way in to 3 of the sites and i have bin to the museum a bunch of times as a kid
    i have a a lot of pics from the sites 2 of the sites we had to clime down the escape hatch to get in 75 feet down a 24″ wide tunnel
    on a lil ass ladder but when we got to the 3rd site we discovered that a man had purchased the land and had made the control room and silo in to a underground home and he gave us a few hrs to look around before we were asked to leave now i live in santa maria ca and am researching a trip to Vandenberg to see the cold war relics i love so much i am aware of the risk and am determined to see what u have seen if u have any pointers please e mail me a loathingthe520@yahjoo.com thank u

  31. “Whether or not these buildings contained anything of strategic importance, Scott, nor I would never truly know.”

    Here’s your answer…

    The southern most point you marked to avoid is building 1819. This 8+ story behemoth of a building that dominates the valley is the MAB (Missile Assembly Building). From about 2003 to present, the Missile Defense Agency has used this building as the assembly facility for GBI Missile Interceptors.

    The long earth covered “bunker” is building 1894. It is used by the MDA for temporary storage of GBI Missile Interceptors.

    The northern most point you marked to avoid is building 1900. When it was Rail Garrison, building 1900 was the IRF (Inspection & Refurbishment Facility). Now it is the MPF (Minotaur Processing Facility) and it is where the Air Force takes decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs and converts them to Minotaur 4 rockets which are used to launch military satellites.

    It was a very good call to bypass these locations as all three ARE active. I would NOT recommend snooping around them to anyone. The risk can quickly change from trespassing to terrorism.

  32. Christian on said:

    Wow Jon,

    Well I was stationed at VAFB for 4 years. Very good read!

  33. Bob McKee on said:

    I was there in 1960 when the Titan silo blew up. Very much like a Roman Candle. We all watched all launches as the launch sites were just out of view from my bedroom window on Oceanview Blvd. Enjoyed your photos. I recall going to near the site when it was allowed and I can recall some of what your overhead shot shows. I would have been 7 years old. Thanks.

  34. Louis salzman on said:

    I read with interest your adventures on VAFB. I worked as an engineer on the Titan 1 facility and was working the night that OSTF blew up. I had been on a hill overlooking OSTF, part of the Tiran 1 facility and I was sitting on a camera mount watching the Titan as it was raised on the elevator. when the elevator stopped in the raised position I went back into the Titan 1 facility, as I closed the massive steel doors into the site I heard the explosion and went back out. The sky was full of exploding missile parts and it was as light as day. I immediately went back into the Titan 1 facility. There was a huge over pressure blast that went throught the Titan 1 facility ans some of the people working In the silos experienced minor ear damage as a result of the over blast. Later I went back outside to the place I had been sitting and the camer mount was gone and sticking out of the hill where it had been was about 2 feet of a huge steel girder about 18 inches square. I later found out that the beam was about 12 feet long mostly embedded in the hill. OSTF had two 60 tonne doors which were folded back during the exercise. Half of one door was found about 1/4 mile away sitting on what had been a guard shack. Fortunately the guard was out of the shack having a cigarette when the piece landed on the shack. He went home and refused to return to work.

    I eventually worked my was up to the position of Test Conductor on one of the Titan 2 sites and participated in numerous Titan 2 launches. While working on the Titan 2 program the Cuban crisis occurred, by this time the Titan 1 sites had been turned over to the Air Force. The normal turn around time from receipt of a Titan1 missile at the site to launch readiness was 10 days for Air Force personnel, but the government wanted to do a bit saber ratteling and they wanted three missiles ready to go in three days, two with nuclear warheads. Because the air force could not vary their procedures the government secondered myself and two other test conductors to supervise the preparation of the three missiles sites. We were given the rank of major and took over the management of the three sites using air force personnel to prepare the missiles for launch. We got the job done and one missile was launched into the Pacific.. When I initially started on the secondment I decided to stay in Lompoc for the preparation period (I had been living in Santa Barbara) so I said goodbye to my family, not knowing if we would be alive in three days time as we suspected that there were Russian submarines off the west coast at that time and there were sightings of so called Russian fishing boats in the Pacific just outside of the restricted zone. Until a few years ago I would be overcome with stress when I thought about that experience.

    After the Cuban missile crisis I returned to the Titan 2 site where I worked until being reassigned to supervise an engineering group that was up dating Titan 2 sites around the U.S. I left the missile industry in 1974, changed my profession (psychologist) and I have been living and working in Australia ever since.

    When I was working at VAFB the missile sites were protected 24/7 by guard dogs and you wouldn’t have been able to get close to the missile sites. I guess that end of the base is in retirement now.

  35. Tanya C on said:

    Too cool! I used to live on Vandenberg AFB from 2002 – 2006, and my husband actually worked in the building connected to the exploded missile silo. It looks exactly as I remember. (the silo with green water and the ice plant) they worked in the outer part of the old building and the portion that lead to the silo was blocked off and chained shut. at one point they did access it and there was still calendars on the wall and coffee cups and office furniture. (along with rattlesnakes and whatnot.) Im shocked you guys dudnt get caught, super ballsy!

  36. I loved this story and it had a particular relevance for me: I was a 30th Security Police Squadron member from 1996-97, (we were SPs before they changed it to SF, which i hate), and I had to chuckle about your description of the white patrol vehicles, that was me when I was there! You description of the helicopter patrol brought back memories too; that’s how we scanned the base to make sure there weren’t stragglers or beachcombers before a missile launch. Wouldn’t that be funny if you happened to be there right as security was heightened before a launch? Anyway, thanks for the story and the memories.

    P.S. I also loved to explore these sites, and had time to since I usually worked the night shifts!

  37. Toby: Great to hear from you! Glad we weren’t exploring these places in 1996-97 – otherwise we could have likely had a very awkward encounter in the middle of night at Vandenberg. I think if more people knew about these places, they would be calling for its designation as a National Historic Park. Then all could enjoy the place without fear of being booked on terrorism charges.

  38. Bill Thompson on said:

    I enjoyed reading the account of your trespassing/adventure. I served at Vandenberg as a SAC trained killer, 4392SPS, from Jul 76- Mar 79. I must say, I would have enjoyed tracking you down, cat and mouse. During my time only SLC-3 and SLC 4 were active Atlas and Titan launch facilities, both on south Vandenberg. Only Minuteman and BOMARC launches on North V. I have to admit, I did my fair share of snooping around, both on and off duty. There were just so many places and things for a 20 yr old to crawl through and around. Best years of my Air Force career. Some of the spookiest posts I ever manned were on that base.

  39. Esther on said:

    Hi – great story! I was wondering if I could get some info on the bats that you mentioned? Thanks.
    Esther

  40. Esther,
    I would not be able to help you re: the bats, being unversed in species. They were small – probably your average California bat species, but beyond that, I can’t help! :-)

  41. john b. on said:

    I’m still able to occasionally get on base and explore north vandy …. I lived on base in the late 60s and there was and still is endless junk to explore…even in uncontrolled places such as Burton Mesa where there are some Camp Cooke era pillboxes with vintage GI graffetti.

    I was out on the cliffs north of the rifle range today. Its still a wonderful place to explore and too big to secure…even tho I was there legally today….

    Great epic!

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