Can You Outrun a Nuclear Missile?
Yes, But Only If You Don't Obey The Guard's Orders to Stop!

A short story by H. Michael Sweeney based on true fact

As jet engine mechanic for the Strategic Air Command in the mid-late sixties, I had the pleasure of working on a variety of aircraft powerplants. This includes test cell operation where the engines are put through their paces prior to installation into aircraft. But one engine I worked on violated that norm, because it was not an aircraft engine, at all. Rather, it was the engine to the Hound Dog AGM (air to ground) tactical nuclear missile.

This weapon system is a relatively small (smaller than most trainer aircraft) and sleek swept wing missile normally carried under the wing of the B-52 bomber. The role of the engine in missile application was entirely different than that of normal aircraft -- as was the maintenence cycle and procedure. In a normal fighter application, for instance, you might expect a given max thrust level for short periods of afterburner operation and similar, but lesser levels for max cruise operation. In such a situation, the rules called for frequent tear down inspections based on aircraft operational hours, typically a number in the hundreds.

But in this particular application, the engine was "souped up" to perform well beyond anything a fighter aircraft would demand of it. It was designed to run flat out at specifications which would be torture to all parts concerned. Thus we did not perform tear-down maintenance at all. The engine was rated for a very short life span, six hours as I recall. After that, it would be discarded (on the presumption the missile was never fired in anger).

But we would need to perform tune up and other maintenance, such as filter changes, and so forth, on a regular basis. We were required to test run the engine afterwards, as we would any maintenance on any engine. But because the missile's flight course correction (programmed flight path) also needs to be tested, such tests are not performed out of the aircraft. Rather, the entire missile is hung from a special free-mount gimbal to allow it to simulate flight changes.

So the Hound Dog would be run at idle for leak checks, tuned for idle, and then run up slowly to full throttle and checked, tuned again. At full throttle, the blue-white flame spitting out the back was probably thirty feet long. Standing under it to make the adjustments was probably the bravest thing I have ever done. The roar and vibrations are so intense that, standing firmly on two feet, you feel as if you are vibrating along frictionless on the cement floor like a coin on the roof of a car slapped repeatedly with fists. Even being in a helicopter crash was not as scary!

Then the engine would be returned to idle and the flight program would kick in, and the thing would roar to life at once, and the missile would pitch and yaw to simulate its flight to target. Quite impressive. Not something you soon forget.

One person who will never forget was a certain Airman whose name is unimportant, but we will call him Gomer for the purpose. Gomer was from the Ozarks, and not known for being terribly bright. A big, lumbering oaf of a guy, he was slow as molasses both in body and in mind. Someone once bet him one dollar he could not eat one dozen doughnuts in one minute. He won that bet, but when he was done, his mouth was bleeding from the attempt.

I remember one day the Hound Dog was hung on the gimbal and ready to be tested. It was a nice, hot summer day in North Dakota. Gomer was arranging for a jet fuel fuel delivery to the test cell. I think we kept about 2,000 gallons in the cell tank, and the fuel truck had to be pretty good sized for the job. The truck pulled up and the driver ran the hose over, and locked it down.

The hose has a safety valve which is supposed to shut down the truck's pumps when the tank is full or if anything goes wrong. Things would go wrong. Unfortunately, very nearby was a diesel operated generator, which was always in operation when the test cell was up and running. For reasons unknown, when the tank was full, the valve did not shut down the truck. Instead, full began spraying from the nozzle in a very fast and furious funnel-shapped pattern all about the area.

The truck operator and Gomer were immediately doused with fuel. Worse, the spray was engulfing the power generator. Both the driver and Gomer realized at once that this was not a good thing. The driver tried to shut down the truck's pumps manually, but fell in the pooled fuel. He fell because Gomer was running past him, bumping him and knocking him to his feet. The driver took Gomer's cue and ran after him.

Gomer may not have gotten the best grades in school, but he had calculated his best move. Seconds later, there was the first fireball as the misted jet fuel ignited on the hot generator. The driver ran about 100 yards and dove into a ditch at the side of the road when the fuel cell tank blew into a massive fireball number two. Gomer had already crossed that road. He hadn't stopped, even to take cover from the blast.

Gomer kept running. He ran roughly 100 more yards until he came to the parking lot for the main facilities at the flight line. Across this he ran some 50 more yards, and then past the first cluster of buildings of a like distance. Another 100 yards to the maintenance hanger, then through it for perhaps 50 more yards. It was then that the third fireball from the trucks fuel tank let go.

Onto the flightline where the "ready" B-52s were parked. These aircraft were armed with nuclear weapons in case of alert, and were guarded by guards with machine-pistols. At hearing the explosions, of course, they took on an air of concern. When ONE someone seemed to be running away from the direction of the explosions, he caught their attention, too.

As he ran across the 100 yards towards and between two B-52's, several of the guards leveled their weapons at him and shouted at him to "stop, or I'll shoot!" He didn't stop. Fortunately, something about the fear on his face the whole time and a certain uncaring about the threats deterred the guards from making good on it. They didn't shoot. Gomer kept running.

He ran past the airplanes and across 50 yards to the main runway. Across that and another 50 yards to the parallel return runway. Across that and then many, many hundreds of yards, he ran. He ran until he encountered a burm near the edge of the base boundary. He tried to climb that, but collapsed in the attempt. Seconds later, the guards had him in custody, as suspected terrorist, or worse.

In the end, he explained his marathon as being based on just one thing. His concern was that that darned Hound Dog that went up in the fireballs was armed with a nuclear bomb. He was afraid the missile's warhead would explode. Too bad no one told him that the missile was not armed, or even that if it were, it would not detonate in any such accident. Too bad he didn't stop to think that even if there was such a danger, he would have had to run better than five miles just to avoid evisceration.

Were was I? I was off duty that day, at the barracks some three blocks away. I was on the third-story balcony enjoying the sun when I noticed the refeuling operation getting underway. Wondering who was working, I retrieved my binoculars. Just as I trained them on and recognized Gomer, the fuel began to spray. Gomer never lived it down. He asked to be transfered, and was. The last I saw of him was him running away past the fuel truck and into the field beyond, distancing himself from the white-hot fear which drove him.


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