A LOT of Planes and a great big Missile

There were a couple of big attractions on our list in the vicinity of Tucson. First up was the Pima Air and Space Museum (which was much more “air” than “space”). This is apparently the third biggest aircraft museum in the World in terms of number of planes, with over 300 on display, some indoors in huge hangars and some outdoors.

They had a huge variety of planes on display, both military and civilian. The star of the show here is a Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird. It’s hard to believe that this thing dates back to less than 20 years after the end of WW2.

As usual, I awarded my own prizes….. On this occasion I went with 1. Best Smiley Face, 2. Most Likely to be called Planey McPlaneface, and 3. Best Paint Job….

The museum is right next to an Air Force base and “the boneyard”, which is where all branches of the US Military store their out-of-service planes. There are over 4000 of them parked up here. About 200 are crushed each year and about another 200 arrive.

The name “boneyard” is deceptive as these planes are not junk. They have different categories. Some could go back into service, others are used for spare parts (and there are different categories to specifiy what kind of parts can be taken from them).

As this is part of a live facility you can’t just go in and wander around, but they do run tours from the museum. You have to show your passport multiple times and can’t get off the bus, but it was well worth doing just to see all the planes and get an explanation of how it all works. They have set up a “celebrity row” with examples of many of the planes there and the “special” planes so the tour guide can talk about them as you drive slowly by.

The next day we went to the Titan Missile Museum. Mark was a bit disappointed as he’d imagined that it would have a lot more about missiles in general; I’d had chance to read the guide book (Mark was working until a couple of weeks before we came away so was bombarded with information and “do you want to go to?” questions each evening, most of which he quickly forgot as soon as it got time to worry about what machinery he needed to take with him the following day) so I knew that it was the only remaining Titan II missile silo rather than a more general missile museum.

We got a good tour explaining how it all worked. The big advantage of Titan II over Titan I, we were told, was a change in the fuel system. Titan I could only be fuelled immediately before it was launched (you couldn’t leave the fuel in the missile as it wasn’t stable enough), then had an ignition system to get things going. Titan II had two liquids which could be left in the missile ready to launch and which, when mixed, would go Whoosh…. No ignition system required. The main drawback of this was of course that a leak could spell disaster….

The control room was a bit James Bond. I was intrigued by the failsafes to stop the missile being launched accidentally. I have to say that it did all seem quite odd….. When you received the coded launch message, for example, you had to  first open the big red filing cabinet to retrieve your launch codes etc. This had two big combination padlocks on it, one for the commander and one for his deputy, and only they ever knew the combinations. I did ask what happened if one of them keeled over with a heart attack and was told “ah, that’s why they carried guns down here….”.

You then had to take a wad of small envelopes out of the filing cabinet (yep folks, this was all a bit like a Cold War board game….). Each envelope had two letters on it. Find the envelope with the same two letters as the first two in the second line of the coded message. Open the envelope and remove the card inside. If the letters and numbers on it match the rest of the second row on the card then you know that the launch message came from the President…..

The other safety feature that sticks in my mind (there was more faff involving keys and the like) was a 6 digit combination on one of the control panels. This had to be set before the missile could be launched, but no-one in the control room knew what it was. The cunning plan was that someone from the air force base would phone through with the combination as required (presumably having completed his own little game show involving mystery envelopes and the like).

We were told that the missile could launch in, if I remember correctly, 48 seconds. Not counting, of course, the 48 minutes of pandemonium prior to that when someone drops the magic envelope down the back of the filing cabinet…..

We’d already been told that if you detonated one Titan Missile above the US, that it would knock out all electronics in the whole country. It wasn’t entirely clear what would happen, therefore, if the Russians managed to detonate something above the US before they’d managed to get the Titan Missiles on their way….. Something to read up on sometime, but we had to move on as we have a hectic tourism schedule to complete….