Jeffrey LewisMore on that TE rollover at Minot

A former Malmstrom missileer writes to say that 3-4 TE rollovers over 25-30 years “seems about right, it’s definitely not something that happens every day.”

From what I recall of TE emplacements (I was a missileer so not really an expert in convoy or TE ops) they have special routes that they follow in the missile field due to their sheer size and vehicle requirements. But it is almost impossible to operate in the wilds of North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming without having to travel gravel roads. One would expect that maybe the routes for these things would pre-surveyed before they roll out (or at least after heavy rain) but that might involve an unreasonable level of manpower and equipment.

Vehicle rollovers among the security forces and missileers are the most common mishap by far in the ICBM business. We were constantly being briefed, yelled at, and trained in how to drive safely. When I first got there ORM (Operational Risk Management) was the big deal. Before every vehicle movement you had to complete this little matrix which calculated the risk for not only that particular sortie but each person as the driver. The person with the lowest risk factor was the driver, after taking into consideration things like age, driving experience, experience in the field, and weather. This risk number indicated not only who would drive but also what level of leadership would be needed to authorize the movement. In Green weather/road conditions, it was usually the Squadron Commander level (O-5) and sometimes down to the crew member level. But as weather/road conditions changed to yellow or red every vehicle movement had to be authorized by the Operations Group CC (usually an O-6) or Wing Commander, respectively. With 40 missileer and 8 security forces vehicle trips every single day (simply from crew changeover), plus at least a couple dozen maintenance movements and a whole bunch of security alarms, that’s a lot of logistics every single day.

At one point there had been a series of vehicle mishaps by the security forces so the fix was to put an officer or Master Sergeant (E-7) in every vehicle for every movement as a safety observer. Of course, there weren’t nearly enough SF leadership around so they ended up taking missileers off crew rotations and sending them out to the MAFs for 3-4 days at a time so they could simply sit around waiting for the SF to have to drive somewhere (like a security alarm at 3 am). And of course that impacted the missileer manning.

They also implemented a GPS tracking system for the crew vehicles towards the end of my career that was accessible by the leadership from any internet connection along with a new organization to control all vehicle movements in the field (like an air traffic control tower). They also played around with car pooling which was a hoot. And every crew member who rolled a vehicle had to drive down to FE Warren with their squadron and group commanders to brief the 20th AF CC themselves on what happened and how they were going to fix it. Not an enjoyable trip.

The kicker in all this? For the most part we drove Chevy Tahoes without 4-wheel drive (rear wheel only) which are definitely not the safety and most stable option in changing weather and road conditions.

We actually turned this whole fiasco into a board game. A bunch of really bored missileers who were stuck in the field for a 48-hour alert (instead of the normal 24) due to hazardous road conditions created it. The game was played like Candy Land and the object was to get from the base to the MAF before the other vehicles. You flipped a coin to move either 1 or 2 spaces forward. Landing on various squares had you drawing different types of cards or doing different actions. One stack of cards were changing road conditions while another were “improvements” made to the driving procedures by the leadership. There were even little game pieces made from used car pictures clipped from the local newspaper.

Awesome. Speaking of life as a missileer, if you haven’t read The ever-ready nuclear missileer by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger in the most recent Bulletin, you should. They have a brief account of the drive out to the Missile Alert Facility:

We then piled into a government SUV with our traveling companions: two local television journalists, two public affairs officers—Staff Sgt. Kurt Arkenberg and Capt. Nora Eyle—and another air force escort, Maj. Jared Granstrom. We headed east on Interstate 80 toward Echo One, a Missile Alert Facility (MAF).

It was approximately 100 miles from the base to Echo One—missileers cumulatively drive millions of miles each year to get from base to launch facilities—and for most of the journey we traveled on I-80, until we approached the Wyoming state line. At one point, we trailed a military convoy—an armored Humvee with flashing lights driving behind a nondescript tractor trailer marked only with the sign “wide load.” (Though we had no way of knowing for sure what the con- voy was transporting, nuclear materials couriers driving specially outfitted tractor trailers are used to transport warheads and drive along the regular interstate system. According to news reports, however, they typically drive at night.)

We exited I-80 at Pine Bluffs, a town right on the eastern edge of Wyoming. We turned right at a Subway sandwich shop and drove through the main drag, inevitably called Main Street. Someone more inclined toward conspiracy theory might have thought the town had been built there as a sort of Potemkin village, the main
purpose of which was to look so ordinary as to conceal the exit to Echo One. In fact, our final turnoff was so easy to miss that the first time around we drove right past it and had to circle back down Main Street. We drove a few miles, turning on and off numbered county roads until we finally approached a long gravel roadway.

The SUV slowed to 10 miles per hour, gravel popping under the tires as we approached what appeared to be an ordinary ranch house, save for what looked like the Satellite Dish of the Gods sticking out of the top.


  1. Major Lemon (History)

    Where can I get the board game? Sounds cool.

  2. Another Anon Commenter

    I was a Missile Maintenance Officer and Missile Convoy Commander at Minot during the mid-80s. I recall a few mishaps involving TE rollovers from that era at other bases. The problem with the TEs from that era were that they had a high center of gravity and were prone to such rollovers. They made a fix with new tractors and a lower CG. I recall one convoy I ran that included a soft spot on a gravel road in CHARLIE flight. The TE drive had to get his speed up and go over that soft spot so we wouldn’t end up being stuck. Watching from the Convoy Commander lead vehicle, I watched as the TE went over that spot at speed and wobbled side to side. I held my breath wondering if I’m seeing my career go up in smoke before my eyes. The Gods were smiling upon me that day as we made it through without incident. Every mission as a missile convoy commander was an adventure.