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The Land Yacht: Field Report on the SM-65E Atlas ICBM Silo Site #4

Christopher Tracy June 14, 2017 All Things Hoon, Featured 17 Comments

First step after deciding that you’re going to start exploring your surrounding area is researching what’s around you.

Moab, the Rockies and even the mountain trails back East are not close enough for the quick weekend trip with our limited equipment. So, I started looking for a trip that would intrigue my family as well as allow us to get out and explore a little, but still be nearby.

The options for a quick trip in the Midwest can be limited, but there are some geographic and man-made landmarks of note to check out. The Ozark Mountains are there, but with the long holiday weekend approaching they were flooded with “lake traffic”, so they’re out. The Sand Hills of Central Nebraska are slightly out of range at six hours away by interstate. Little Sahara State Park in Northern Oklahoma is five hours away also by interstate. A side goal to the Land Cruiser disconnecting the boys is exploring our surroundings, trying to discover new sights, and taking roads we wouldn’t normally use. Interstate travel is out, until we’ve explored more of our local area. So where did we go?

There is a decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile silo an hour and a half away. It can be navigated to using Google Maps, dirt roads, and was the destination for our first family, no-electronics outing.

The site used to house an Atlas missile. This site housed an SM-65E Atlas, part of the first generation of ICBM that the Strategic Air Command used to deter the USSR. This particular site was one of nine located in and around Central Kansas that made up the 548th Strategic Missile Squadron. Thanks to Wikipedia you can see the layout for most of the original missile silos built in that first generation of deterrence across the whole U.S.

As soon as we were on the road, it didn’t take long to notice that #TheLandYacht’s air conditioning, that I had recently filled, was no longer pumping out the sweet, sweet cold air. Houston, we have a leak. Yuck. We continued on. There were drinks and a little discomfort would be good for us.

The Land Cruiser handled the gravel roads with ease. The new BFGoodrich K02s did a great job of soaking up the jostling from the minor ruts and grooves. I am adding to the list of future fixes a set of aftermarket shocks. The original shocks are 23 years old and tired. We don’t have any trips planned this year that will require the Land Cruiser to be lifted, so we’ll look for a set of shocks that will keep the truck at the stock ride height. Are you ears burning 4 Wheel Parts? Probably not.

Once we got to the actual missile site I immediately had second thoughts. The main silo structure is flooded and most of the vegetation has grown to a man’s waist height making obstacles and holes difficult to see. Only Kid 1.0 can handle himself reliably in deep water, so I was constantly checking on where the smaller boys were at all the time. Making sure that I had physical contact with Kid 3.0, since he is the most independent and prone to “wandering” off. We walked on the main road around the site and some places with firm footing and good visibility. The boys explored, but it wasn’t the best idea to take them out there.

You could easily see the main structure, but the surrounding area was littered with exhaust vents, manholes and other pieces of concrete and metal strewn about. Kid 3.0 had a blast playing in the open areas, but I never really let him get too far away. He gave me funny looks because of it.

The site is located southwest of the small town of Burlingame, Kansas with no houses or buildings in sight. There were the ever-present leftover shell cases of someone firing off a .22 and a larger caliber weapon that you can always find at destination sites in the middle of nowhere.

I was impressed by the amount of algae that seemed to be present on the metal work that we could see through the water. There is an amazing amount of space below ground at these sites. Some of these abandoned missile sites have actual been turned into 20th Century Castles.

After a little research, we figured out that there were 27 Atlas E, coffin-style launch sites created. The missiles themselves laid on their side until it was time to fuel and launch it at the Communists. The roof would slide to the side and the rocket would be erected to a standing position. There is an area covered by a large metal plate located behind the missile that would be opened for the blast exhaust to exit through.

The particular site we visited is listed as site #4 of the 548th Strategic Missile Squadron and was assigned to Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, Kansas. There are nine sites assigned to the 548th and all are located around Central Kansas. The 548th was joined by the 566th of Cheyenne, WY and 567th of Spokane, WA as being the three Atlas E squadrons. Almost all Atlas rocket systems were constructed in the late ‘50s and were decommissioned by the mid ‘60s. Talk about an arms race. They spent $3.3 million in 1960’s money (~$27 million now) on each facility and they were obsolete in less than a decade.

Really a learning experience. I got to revitalize those feelings of impending doom from the ‘80s and try to explain to my boys what life was like during the Cold War. Just like John C. Reilly’s character in Kong: Skull Island, my boys struggled with the concept. The closest we got to understanding was imagining that you and a bully were on the playground. And you could hit the bully really hard and he wouldn’t get any more recess, but he could also hit you really hard and you wouldn’t get anymore recess. So what do you do? If you hit him, he hits you. Do you risk no more recess if it means he also has no more recess or do you both do nothing? That’s how I chose to explain almost 40 years of passive-aggressive, Democracy v. Communism, NATO v. USSR disagreement. It kind of worked.

We tentatively explored the site for twenty minutes. That was the point at which my nerves were done from constantly looking for holes that someone could fall into. So, we loaded them back up. Parenting Tip: It’s harder to fall into a hole if you’re strapped into a truck. Not impossible, but much harder.

My favorite part of the whole trip, other than the obvious fact that we were outside seeing something we hadn’t seen before, was on the way back. I glanced into the back seat to see the older boys looking out the windows at the passing countryside. They had put down their devices and were looking outside. Prefect. That was exactly why we were there.

Kansas isn’t as flat as everyone gives us credit for. Many Americans forget that the Rocky Mountains are where tectonic plates are colliding, and just like an old ‘80s steel car impacting a wall with ripples of shock waves down the steel, the waves of the plate impact have turned most of this state into undulating hills. It can be pretty in places.

My boys were probably bored out of their minds staring out the window, but that is the exact skill that I want them to learn. To be able to sit still and stay in your own mind without going insane or bouncing constantly. The rest of us always have a device in our hand, but we can at least remember the time when we used to have to sit there and think our own thoughts. Scary, right? They’re starting to learn.

This trip has been deemed a success. We saw a box turtle, which was enough for Kid 1.0 to declare success. Matt Farah has shared his girlfriend’s family motto a couple times on their podcast and it absolutely applied to this trip. “Fun is best when it’s over.” We were hot, tired, hungry and had run into too many bugs for some of us, but when we got home and talked about what we had done that day, everyone was glad we had gone.

Each time I take #TheLandYacht out, I’ve noticed something that needs to be updated or repaired. There will always be another project. That one of the best parts of driving a “Cougar” of a vehicle. The “leaky” windshield and lack of AC are the top of the list this summer, but the front axles are starting to click. For the other FZJ80 Land Cruiser owners out there, you know what that means. There is a front axle rebuild in our future. Hopefully sooner, rather than later. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

For now, trips and fun.

You can follow Chris, his boys and #TheLandYacht on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, @overlandingdad.

  • “Many Americans forget that the Rocky Mountains are where tectonic plates are colliding…”

    Well, were colliding, anyway. The details are messy (as with so much of geology) but essentially that period of activity in the Rockies came to a close in the early Eocene.

    • Vairship

      And about the flatness of Kansas, I have bad news and good news: http://mentalfloss.com/article/58976/kansas-really-flatter-pancake
      And the study referenced: http://www.improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume9/v9i3/kansas.html

      • outback_ute

        Hmm, that kind of reads like it could just be made up, but at least by someone who knows their stuff so it sounds properly plausible.

      • Christopher Tracy

        Seems like decent Science. My favorite note: “we should also mention that recently some quick-thinking cosmologists also described the universe as being ‘flatter than a pancake’ after making detailed measurements of the cosmic background radiation.” So technically, we’re all “flatter than a pancake.”

        I spent three years in south Florida, so I tend to use that as a baseline for flatness. My dad used to joke that south Florida is the only place in the US where you can stand on the hood of your car and see both coastlines. There are flat places in most states. The Flint Hills can be quite picturesque. There are way cooler states to live in, but Kansas will always be home.

    • Rover 1

      A lot quieter than an active geologic collision zone like where I am on the ring of fire around the Pacific.

      Also: demostration on the effectiveness of the moat.

    • 0A5599
  • Alff

    If this sort of thing interests you, plan for a trip to Whiteman AFB outside of KC. In addition to the Stealth Bombers, Whiteman is home to the command center for your decommissioned silo. One Friday a month they provide public viewing of the bombers and if you ask nicely ahead of time, you may get to tour the old command center, deep underground.

    • Christopher Tracy

      Any chance you have a direction for me to head to find that contact info?

    • Christopher Tracy

      Any chance you know the direction for me to head-in to contact them?

  • longrooffan

    Way to go Dad.

  • ptschett

    A Cougar of a vehicle? That doesn’t look like a Cougar at all!

    (But, I used to drive a car that would have looked exactly like this when it was new: ) https://assets.hemmings.com/blog/wp-content/uploads//2016/05/26583638-770-0.jpg

    • cap’n fast

      one can hardly say if it ain’t broke don’t don’t fix it but it is getting better- Atlas V heavy launch vehicle. hardly looks like the ICBM of the the fifties. and a lot more reliable.
      fun fact- while in storage, the atlas fuel tanks are pressurized to maintain their shape sort of like a blimp (balloon, type b, limp. lighter than air as used by USN during WWII)

      • AlexG55

        In terms of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”- the Russians have *still* never put a man in space on a rocket not designed by Sergei Korolev. He died in the 1960s.

    • Christopher Tracy

      “Cougar” as in aging beauty feasting on youth. Yours does look pretty sweet! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/335b418036780a8c6e90fe2a6702fba04faa1fd2171b7e7f7ab6727d4f9447b4.png

      • ptschett

        Aha, I’m still not used to thinking of a ’90’s car as being older. I wish my Cougar looked like that, but the last 16 years it’s been more like this, rusting in peace…
        http://i41.tinypic.com/11qr0ip.jpg

  • Cool story Chris