GREEN VALLEY, AZ (ARIZONA HIGHWAYS TV) - They say the Cold War is over, but Arizona is still holding on to at least one missile from America's nuclear arsenal.
It's scary, and yet at the same time impressive, and you can see it inside the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley. There is something more, something that will put fear in your ears.
About a half-hour south of Tucson, there's a hole in the ground. People flock here to Sahuarita to see it.
"It isn't often that you get to stand right next to the largest nuclear weapon that the United States ever deployed," Chuck Penson, a historian, said. "It isn't really often you get to stand next to any nuclear weapon, you know, so there is a kind of 'wow' factor in that."
So up in the nose gun, there is a single, very large, hydrogen bomb - a thermonuclear weapon. It has a yield of 9 megatons, which means that it has the equivalent explosive power of 9 million tons of TNT.
The preserved, Titan II missile site, officially known as "Complex 571-7," is all that remains of the 54 Titan II missile sites. They were on alert across the United States from 1963 to 1987.
"Big, red safe is called the 'EWO' safe. EWO stands for Emergency War Orders. A lot of the crew used to call that the 'go-to-war safe,' 'cause there's no reason to open that unless you're going to war," Penson said. "Two combination locks on it, one for the commander, one for the deputy. They know their own combination, but they don't know each others'. So they both have to agree to get inside the safe."
The missile could launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds. The Titan II was capable of delivering a 9 megaton nuclear warhead to targets more than 6,000 miles away in about 30 minutes.
"We have three targets. Three preprogrammed targets that we could launch against. They are targets one, two and three. Their locations were classified and unknown to the crew, and remain classified to this day," Penson said. "Targets are selected from the commander's console right here, just a matter of pressing one button or the other. Each target of the three can be set as an airburst or a ground burst, depending on the kind of targets we're going to go after. And this big thing is called the MGACG, the Missile Guidance Alignment Checkout Group. This is how we tell the missile where it's going. All the targeting information is fed from the MGACG to the guidance computer on punched tape, like this. So before floppy disks, before cassette tapes, before punch cards, there was this stuff. State of the art back in 1960."
Nowhere else in the world can visitors get this close to an intercontinental, ballistic missile, that's still pretty much where it was, how it was, during the Cold War.
The complex was built of steel, reinforced concrete with walls as much as 8-feet thick in some places. Several 3-ton blast doors seal the various areas from the surface and each other. The top level of the silo lets you see the silo missile doors. To make good on an agreement between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, the silo doors are permanently blocked from opening more than halfway. The dummy re-entry vehicle, mounted on the missile, has an obvious hole cut in it, to prove that there is no longer a bomb inside.
But one of the most fearful and fascinating features onsite isn't something you'll see. It's sound!
"This is a federal Thunderbolt model 1003 siren. It's a dual-tone siren. Federal installed thousands of these across the United States during the 1950s. They were originally thought of like air raid sirens.
"Until just a couple years ago, this electrical box and the horns on top this tower we're pretty much forgotten," Penson said.
Penson and a friend got curious and then they got to work. They took some cleaning, oiling, wrenching and tinkering to get it back to working order.
"There's a control box right here, and inside the control box are all the controls we need to turn on the blower, the chopper, which is the rotating shutter, and we can actually make the siren go around like this also," Penson said.
There's no set schedule for running the Thunderbolt. Usually, it's fired up no more than once a month. When it does, it gets a lot of attention - sometimes too much.
On the day of our visit, it got people calling the Pima County Sheriff's Office. Deputies showed up to check it out.
"And the reason it was put in is because of a very serious accident that happened at a site like this in Little Rock, Arkansas, in which, ultimately, the missile exploded in the silo. And so they thought, 'Hmm, maybe it would be a good idea to have a way of warning the kind of local population that something's going on at one of these sites that they might wanna get out of town for a little while," Penson said. "We don't run the siren on a regular basis. So when we do run it, we try to time it so that we run it for a group that's just come up from underground, or maybe for a group that's just gonna go underground, so they really get to experience it firsthand."
Most visitors wonder, "What was it like to be part of the crew that might have launched the missile?" They want to know what it's like, as they say, your finger on the button.
"It takes two keys to fire the missile, put a key in here, here," said Penson.
Well, there is no button, there was a key - two of them, actually.
"Keys are far enough apart that not even a long-armed guy like me can reach them both. Keys must be turned within two seconds of each other, and they're spring-loaded. So you've gotta hold them in the turn position for five seconds, before the launch will start. That guarantees that two people will be required to do this," said Penson.
On each underground tour, one visitor gets to follow through on turning the key that could've started World War III.
"Now it's payback time, commander, so - what you're gonna do, is you're gonna use your left hand, you're gonna be giving a countdown three, two, one, turn keys. Try it once." "Three, two, one, turn keys." "Excellent.
"When you get to turn keys, and we always invite one of our guests to sit in the commander's seat and give us a countdown and turn the keys. And I have had people refuse to turn the keys, even knowing that it's just a simulation. I've had people actually cry at that prospect. So it does have, I think, at some level, a very significant emotional punch," said Penson.
Arizona Highways Television is brought to you by Arizona Public Service and the Arizona Office of Tourism.