(above) An Atlas F missile raised and ready for launch.

The year is 1957. The United States and the Soviet Union are rapidly approaching the height of the Cold War. Each side possesses nuclear weapon technology, and each side is racing to be the first with the ability to deliver this technology over extremely long distances. The result of this arms race: Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)--giant rockets designed to lift nuclear warheads into outer space, where the warheads would then propel themselves back down toward their intended targets. By 1960, the United States has put online its first series of operational ICBMs, called the Atlas D series. These aboveground "soft" facilities housed the Atlas D missiles and, while vulnerable to foreign attack, were made ready as quickly as possible in order give the United States an early answer to the Soviet threat.

(above) The first type of ICBM, an Atlas D missile, being removed from its launch building for deactivation.

Over the next two years, technology progressed at an astonishing rate, leading to the implementation of "semi-hardened" Atlas E launch sites, and then finally "hardened" underground Atlas F launch sites. At an approximate cost of $15 million each, the Atlas F sites were considered to be the best of the Atlas series. These sites consisted of a 52 ft. diameter missile silo going 174 ft. into the ground, with walls made of reinforced concrete 9 ft. thick. Connected to the silo by a horizontal tunnel was a two-story underground Launch Control Center (LCC), which housed the missile crew (known as "missileers"), restroom and kitchen facilities, sleeping quarters, and launch equipment. Suspended within the concrete shell by shock absorbers, the entire facility was built to theoretically withstand a foreign attack and still remain functional. In the event that a launch order was issued by the President of the United States, liquid rocket fuel would be pumped into the Atlas missile as the two 75 ton silo doors opened up vertically (in only 25 seconds!) and the missile was raised to the surface. Within minutes, the missile would be on its way to a pre-designated target, somewhere inside the Soviet Union.

(above) A cutaway drawing of an Atlas F site. Note the multiple 90 degree turns required to descend from the surface into the LCC (a blast protection measure).

Thankfully, the missiles never had to be launched in an attack. But for three years, the Atlas F ICBMs sat in their silos on full alert, ready to be launched at a moment's notice. By 1965, new technology had led to the Titan series of ICBMs, and the Atlas missiles were considered to be obsolete. The Air Force then began deactivating the Atlas F sites, first by removing the missiles and then by gutting the inside of the silos and Launch Control Centers (LCCs). Interestingly, some facilities were left more intact than others, but for the most part, all were left in nearly unrecognizable states. For decades, these sites sat dormant underground, exposed to moisture, shifting soil, and the occasional daring graffiti vandals. Many of the silo structures became at least partially filled with ground water or rain water, which managed to seep inside through the various ducts, vents, and doors. For a while, it looked as though these historic sites would simply fade into history, never to be seen or used again.

However, in the last 25 years, private owners have begun to purchase the sites for their own personal or commercial uses. A few have been converted into underground homes. Others have been converted into underground storage facilities. And one is being used as an underground SCUBA diving site for anyone who is brave enough. All in all, 77 Atlas F sites were built, the majority of which were clustered in groups of 12 that surrounded the Air Force bases they were assigned to.

One of these Air Force bases was Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, which is still in full operation to this day. At one time, Dyess had 12 Atlas F sites located in an approximately 20 mile radius around it. One of these sites is located near the town of Oplin and is owned by a man named Bruce Townsley. Bruce occasionally gives private tours of his site, which he lives in, and on May 8, 2005, he was gracious enough to give a tour to my wife and I. Below are the photos that we took along with some photos of the sites from back when they were operational.

Please feel free to send questions or comments about the photos or ICBM/Atlas F history to me at phil@phildorsett.com. I'd love to hear from anyone who happens to stumble upon this site. Also, anyone interested in touring Bruce's silo should send an email to him at BRUCETOWNSLEY@taylortel.net.

(above) The main security gate and entry road (photo taken from inside the gate).

(above) A missile being driven through the security gate upon delivery.

(above) Initial view of the silo cap. Bruce has managed to open one of the two silo doors (with the help of a giant crane), something very few other Atlas F owners have done. At the time of my tour in 2005, the door was propped open and was inoperable. Since then, I have learned that Bruce has managed to connect the yellow hydraulic ram to the door and it now functions. To my knowledge, this is the only working Atlas F silo door anywhere.

(above) Opposing topside view of the silo cap (photo taken from entryway door).

(above) Operational photo of the silo being prepared for installation of the missile.

(above) Obligatory photo op next to the open silo door. Note: yellow hydraulic ram visible, but not connected; also, note the chain link covering the silo hole (it's a 185 ft. drop below this!).

(above) Here, both silo doors are visible. The crane perched over the open silo door is an addition that Bruce added.

(above) This is the mounting bracket that Bruce had fabricated to connect the hydraulic ram to the inside of the silo door.

(above) Topside view of the emergency escape hatch w/metal cover added by the owner. When the site was operational, a 4 ton column of sand sat in the shaft below this hole as a blast protection measure, and would dump out of the shaft when the lower escape hatch was opened in the LCC. Note: "quonset hut" auxiliary building in the background.

(above) Bruce stands next to one of the utility hatches. Note: UHF antenna in background.

(above) Operational photo of the UHF antenna.

(above) Bruce stands in the entryway door leading down into the facility.

(above) Stairway leading from the entryway down into the corridor. From here, four 90 degree turns are required to enter the LCC.

(above) Throughout the corridor, Bruce has some informative displays with vintage photographs. This one shows one of the Dyess missiles on display in downtown Abilene during its delivery to the silo.

(above) Aerial photo of a site excavation. The sites were constructed by first digging a 45 ft. deep pit. The LCC was then built on top of this layer of soil and an adjacent 130 ft. hole was dug down from there for the missile silo. The entire pit was then backfilled with soil. This backfilled soil has shifted over time, leading to problems in some of the sites.

(above) This photo shows the construction of Bruce's Oplin site.

(above) Ex post facto site blueprint done by the Corps of Engineers.

(above) Initial blast door after turn number three. Note: second blast door in background.

(above) Stairwell leading to both levels of the LCC. Photo taken from the vestibule. Note: Level One of the LCC in the background.

(above) LCC Level Two. Bruce has made quite a home out of his LCC, so the present layout hardly resembles the original layout at all. Originally, there were walls and doors dividing the LCC into rooms (see photo below).

(above) Operational photo of LCC Level Two, taken from an angle similar to the photo above. Note: emergency escape hatch in the ceiling.

(above) Emergency escape hatch. When operational, pulling on the red handle would drop the hatch, releasing a 4 ton column of sand (as noted on the placard in the previous photo), then the crew could make their escape. Note: LCC crib support ceiling bracket in background.

(above) Operational photo of bunk beds on LCC Level Two. Note: emergency escape hatch ladder visible in left ceiling.

(above) Gap around the LCC central support, looking down to LCC Level One.

(above) Area of LCC Level Two previously occupied by bunk beds. Note: although it's difficult to imagine by looking at this photo, there is a 12" or so gap between the edge of the floor and the concrete wall. The owner has installed waist-high sheetrock wall panels (covered on top with the gray shingles) in place of hand rails. The large vertical metal pole is one of the crib supports, which is attached to the ceiling and allows both floors of the LCC (which are connected to each other) to actually hang from the concrete ceiling of the LCC. This means that if the site were to sustain a hit, the LCC floor would be able to absorb the shock. Bruce's silo is the only Atlas F silo with the LCC crib actually suspended like it used to be. When deactivated, all LCC cribs were either taken down and sat on the floor or removed altogether. Bruce was able to demonstrate the LCC's "floating floor" for us by pushing off on one of the walls. Sure enough, the entire floor sways.

(above) Present day living room, formerly the bathroom/kitchen area.

(above) Operational photo of the all-electric kitchen area.

(above) LCC Level One. The angled support beams connect the lower level to the upper level.

(above) As can be seen in this photo, the lower level LCC floor has been given a wood finish, but the room remains relatively empty.

(above) Operational photos of the missile launch console. This is where the missileers would actually "turn the key" to launch the missile. A bathroom now stands in place of this (see shower below).

(above) Very nice shower installed by the owner.

(above) View of the debris door at the bottom of the stairwell leading to the silo, looking from the lower level of the LCC.

(above) Descending the single flight of stairs to enter the 40 ft. horizontal tunnel that opens up in the missile silo.

(above) At the end of the tunnel, opening the green blast door leading into the silo.

(above) Entering the missile silo.

(above) Unlike most Atlas F sites, Bruce's silo is very well lit during the day due to sunlight coming through the open silo door. Also, many of the sites had the entire metal structure in the silo completely removed (leaving only a concrete cylinder). Note: spiral staircase in left background.

(above) Good view up of the open silo door and the ram. This is one of the original hydraulic rams that was used on the Atlas F sites, which Bruce managed to obtain through various contacts. At the time of my tour in 2005, the door was propped open and was inoperable. Since then, I have learned that Bruce has managed to connect the yellow hydraulic ram to the door and it now functions. To my knowledge, this is the only working Atlas F silo door anywhere.

(above) View looking down 130 ft. into the missile space. It's a long drop if you slip while spray painting graffiti in the total darkness.

(above) View looking up at the bottom of the silo cap. Note: the elevator motors which lifted the missile gantry to the surface before launch used to sit on the two cut-off I-beams in the lower left hand corner (see operational photo below for a comparison).

(above) Missile being lowered into the silo. Note: the spool-looking piece on the right side of the photo next to the missile is one of the elevator motors that lifted the missile gantry to the surface for launch.

(above) Like the LCC, the entire silo structure is also crib supported. Shown here is one of the main anchors for the crib supports, which connect to the central structure, some 47 ft. below. Note: political graffiti left by ACU college students, circa 1986. Think about where graffiti vandals had to position themselves in order to paint these particular areas with a 150 ft. drop below them...all in pitch black darkness. Bruce said he fully expected to find a body when he cleaned up the silo floor.

(above) Photo op number two.

(above) Sliding door of the once-operable freight/personnel elevator. Note: copious amounts of silver insulation, no doubt an asbestos abatement nightmare.

(above) Side view of the personnel elevator shaft (again, elevator and equipment have long since been removed).

(above) Looking down into the empty elevator shaft.

(above) Bruce closes up the blast door leading into the silo. Note: the concrete section to the left of the door shows how the thickness of the silo walls narrows from 9 ft. to 2 ft. below this point.

And that's it, folks. The end of the tour. Again, if you have any questions or comments, please email me at phil@phildorsett.com. Thanks for visiting the site!

Related Links

Abilene KTXS News Video Feature on Larry Sanders' Lamb Atlas Site (might require you to re-download the latest free version of Quicktime)

Atlas Missile Tours (Bruce's site)

SiloWorld (best collection of photos online, although the site is next to impossible to navigate)

Atlas Missile Base VR Tour (hard to navigate, but lots of good photos)

Atlas Missile Silo Homepage (w/great maps of all the Atlas sites)

Walker AFB Site 4 Rehab Photos

Another writeup on Bruce's site

Short little HGTV blurb on Bruce's site

Writeup on the Lawn site and the naming of the Atlas ICBM Highway

Dyess missile site trip report (lots of good info on the sites out here, along with some photos)

Infiltration: Roswell Missile Silo (great story of a teenage trip to one of the Atlas F sites back in the 70s)

Infiltration.org (urban exploration site)

Subciety.org (urban exploration club)

SiloBoy.com (this site confuses me...maybe you can figure it out; lots of polish, but no real content that I can see)

20th Century Castles (online relator specializing in the sale of missile bases all over the U.S.)

Atlas ICBM Historical Society (Abilene club, currently on hiatus)

Shep Site Diving Photos

Family SCUBA (owners of Shep site; call to set up dives)

Photo report on a visit to the Titan missile museum in Green Valley, AZ (THE place to go to see a fully restored silo...even if it IS a Titan)

Siloworld's page on the Green Valley Titan Museum

HGTV webpage about the Peden's Atlas E silo in Kansas (the same silo recently featured on TLC's "While You Were Out")

Last updated 28 December 2009