Thursday, December 16, 2010

Off Alert, Echo Flight, 0845: A Reconstruction...Part 1

During the morning of 16 March 1967, an unprecedented event occurred at the 341st SMW's Echo Flight, all ten of the flight's Launch Facilities (LFs) abruptly dropped off alert.  This incident would set in motion a large scale effort by SAC, the 341st SMW, and various support agencies to bring the sorties back up to alert status.   An investigation into the cause of the incident, lasting almost a year, would yield no definitive conclusion other than a "noise" pulse causation with characteristics similar to that of an EMP.  Much has been written and discussed about the Echo Flight shutdowns with speculations swirling around the statements made by Col Walter Figel, the Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander on duty at Echo-01, and the possibility of UFO involvement.  With that said, the story of Echo Flight remains cloudy and lacking of clarity.  Figel and other often mentioned maintenance and security guards consistently frame the storyline, yet what of the others?  These individuals are referenced to, yet always remain in the shadows.  Some are known, but the majority remain unknown to this day.  Based upon numerous articles, the reader gets the sense that only Figel was on alert that morning and the crew commander, Eric Carlson, is mysteriously absent, soundly sleeping while the drama unfolds.  And what of the actual events, can the morning of 16 March 1967 be recreated on paper?  I believe that by combining relevant portions of Figel's statements and correlating the 341st SMW's Unit History narrative then some degree of clarity can be achieved.  By reviewing and analyzing Figel's and Eric Carlson's recollections and comparing the unit history reports, one sees both supporting and contradicting evidence of what actually happened on that morning, yet some form of clarity unfolds as the alert itself is recreated and we find that Eric Carlson plays a major part, as he should have, because after all he was the crew commander in charge of Echo Flight.

The Road to Echo

A short background and the setting of the table is needed to mentally place the day of the incident.  Echo-01, the Launch Control Facility was, and still is, located roughly between the small farming communities of Winifred and Hilger.  The time of travel, from base to the site, would have been approximately two hours, barring weather and road conditions.  Back at Malmstrom, all of the squadron crews would have met for their pre-depature briefing starting at 0700 with actual departure to their respective sites between 0800 and 0830. The road to Echo would have taken the missile crews south easterly passing through Belt, Stanford and eventually to Lewistown, transversing the 10 SMS and a portion of the 490 SMS's Mike Flight.  From Lewistown, the crew would turn and head due north passing through Hilger and eventually taking a county road heading due west and finally arriving at Echo-01.

The 341st SMW had three operational squadrons in 1967, the 10th, 12th, and 490th Strategic Missile Squadrons.  The 564th was soon to be operational with its new Minuteman II LGM-30F) missile and Sylvania designed Launch Control Center, but as of March 1967 its sorties were yet to be placed on active alert status.  Numerous civilian contractors were spread throughout the wing's Launch Facilities installing and integrating new hardened HF antennas.  There is no documentation that shows such contractors on any of Echo's ten LFs on 16 March.  With the exception of the 564th SMS, the three active squadrons employed the Minuteman IA (LGM-30A) missile which would remain in service until the three squadron's upgraded to the Minuteman II in 1972.

Echo Launch Control Center:  15-16 March 1967

Carlson and Figel started their alert duty on the late morning of 15 March.  It's not readily known which crew that they changed over with and taking over the alert.  Leading up to 0845 on 16 March, the alert appears to have been uneventful with all 10 of Echo's LFs showing strategic alert.  On the commander's console the Launcher Status Missile Indicator Panel (LSMIP) would have displayed ten green lighted indicators annotating "Strategic Alert.'' Two of Echo's LFs had maintenance teams on site with the following status annotated on the LSMIP:

E-02: Strat Alert, OZ/IZ illuminated, Mnx on site due to failure of secondary door actuating motor.  Site penetrated by team, two security guards topside.

E-08:  Strat Alert, Fault indicator illuminated, active VRSA 26 (site on diesel generator), OZ illuminated hard or cycling, Mnx on site, two security guards topside with Mnx team in rest status in on-site camper.

Launcher Status Missile Indicator Panel at Commander's console

Note to readers: 

OZ, Outer zone security motion detection system covering the topside of the Launch Facility, particularly covering the launcher closure door, personnel access hatch, and the below ground Soft Support Equipment Building which housed the diesel generator, equipment cooling air system and other support equipment.

IZ, Inner zone security system that covered the inside of the Launch Facility/missile silo.

Eric Carlson was in bed asleep in the early morning hours.  Figel was awake monitoring the alert since he had taken the first sleep shift.  Figel had the LCC lighting set for "dark running" with only the emergency lights illuminated. No message traffic was being transmitted on the Primary Alerting System (PAS) nor was there active traffic on the 487L communication equipment.  All command and control components and equipment were operating without incident.

There is a question as to when Figel woke Carlson.  There are two possibilities, either Figel woke Carlson as was previously requested prior to Carlson starting his sleep shift, or Figel awoke Carlson after the first fault indication and alarm had sounded from the commander's console.  Based upon an interview with Carlson, an assumption could be made that Figel probably woke Carlson at a requested time and was briefing him on the current status of the flight which coincided with the initial sortie dropping off alert.

0845 16 March 1967

The first alarm sounded approximately at 0845 with E-08 dropping off alert.  On the LSMIP, on the commander's console, E-08 would have shown no "alert" indicator illuminated and only the previous fault indicator illuminated for the active VRSA 26.  Figel, per T.O. (Technical Order) checklist procedure was at the deputy commander's console interrogating VRSA for any new active reporting channels for E-08 and would have received the following voice report, "VRSA channel 9...VRSA channel 26...all channels monitored."  The T.O. would have listed the channel 9 report as an LF No-Go situation affecting the missiles guidance and control.  While Figel was busy with VRSA, Carlson was facing the commander's console and saw the rest of Echo's LFs drop from "strategic alert" to "fault" with audible alarms sounding for each consecutive sortie dropping off of alert status.  The crew would then have checked on the VRSA reporting for the rest of the nine LFs receiving active VRSA channel 9s.  The role of the deputy commander was to handle any VRSA requirements.  Eric Carlson, as crew commander, delegated which crew member was to be responsible for contacting the maintenance teams, the Flight Security Controller (FSC), Wing Job Control, and other command elements.  All of the crew actions were dictated by various checklists outlined in the weapon system Technical Manual/Technical Order (T.O.).  Both crew members each had a personal copy of the T.O.

Minuteman I Enable and VRSA Panel at Deputy Commander's console

It is estimated that all ten sorties dropped off alert within a 10 to 40 second time interval.  Carlson noticed that for each LF, none of them dropped into "standby" mode due to the lack of any white light "standby" indicators illuminating.  This would have indicated that the missiles would have started an internal calibration sequence.  Under some circumstances, a missile might drop automatically into "standby" and stay for an extended time in calibration mode and then eventually drop into an LF No-Go condition.  With specific fault and VRSA indications, the crew would command the sortie to drop into calibration mode possibly averting a No-Go situation, but in the case of Echo, there would have been no time to initiate such a command.  There were no flickering of any other indicator lights on the panel, nor did any of the LCC lighting dim.
From statements made later by Figel, he contacted the maintenance team on E-08 via VHF radio.  One of the security guards reported to Figel that the maintenance team was still asleep in the camper which was situated on the LF.  Figel stated that he had the guard authenticate though the authentication process with security personnel would normally have been accomplished by the on duty Flight Security Controller (FSC) top side in the LCF.  Once the maintenance team chief had awoken, Figel would have had him authenticate.  It can be assumed that both members on the LF authenticated properly since no security situation was declared for E-08 itself.  Since E-08 was not penetrated (B-plug was not lowered down and no hard IZ alarm illuminated on the LSMIP), there was no way that the maintenance team could have verified the E-08 was indeed off alert with a channel 9 No-Go.  It would have taken approximately 20 to 30 minutes to lower the B-plug and gain access internally to the LF.

Topside view of Minuteman Launch Facility.  Note the Launcher Closure Door and at the bottom of the photo the Soft Support Building housing diesel generator and equipment cooling air system

After dealing with E-08, Figel turned his attention to E-02.  Figel contacted the maintenance team chief via the Secure Intersite Network (SIN) line.  Both maintenance members were inside the LF proper, possibly repairing/replacing the secondary door actuating motor.  It can be assumed that Figel had the team chief authenticate and then explained the indications that he had received back from the LF.  The maintenance team was in position to verify that E-02 had an active VRSA channel 9 No-Go.  It is at this point where controversy begins as one of the maintenance team members verifies the active channel 9 and then, per Figel's statements, makes the following reply on the SIN line:

“We got a Channel 9 No-Go. It must be a UFO hovering over the site. I think I see one here.”

Figel took this as a joke and continued with his checklist procedures.  Why did Figel believe this to be a joke?  The maintenance team was calling from inside the LF/silo.  Figel makes it clear that the communication was conducted via SIN line, which is only located inside of the LF and the Soft Support Equipment Building (also located underground).  Due to SAC Two-Man Policy and the internal portion of the LF being a No Lone Zone, both team members would have been in eye contact of each other.  Since the team was able to physically confirm the VRSA channel 9 condition, this means that they were definitely inside the LF and not in the Soft Support Building.

Ariel view of a Launch Facility

With both crew members following their respective T.O. (Tech Order) checklist, it appears that Carlson would have been the one making the required notifications.  Carlson's first call would have been to Wing Job Control (WJC) reporting the indications and active VRSA channel 9s.   The WJC  controller would have declared that all sorties were "officially" listed as off of Strategic Alert.  The controller would have provided Carlson with his initials which Carlson would have written down on his crew log.  The controller, enlisted rank, would have immediately notified the OIC of Wing Job Control who in turn would have placed an urgent call to the Deputy Commander for Maintenance (DCM.)

Carlson's next call would have been to the Wing Command Post (WCP) relaying that all of Echo's sorties were off of Strategic Alert.  The command post controller would have annotated his status board with the fault indications and provided his initials for Carlson's crew log.  The WCP would have then notified the wing's Deputy Commander for Operations (DO) and then reported the situation to the Wing Commander.  The information would have immediately been channeled up to 15th Air Force's and SAC's command post listing Echo's sorties as off of alert.  Due to the unusual number of LFs involved, the information would have immediately been sent to CINCSAC.  All of this would have occurred within a matter of minutes.  Carlson would later recall that he received a call from a SAC general verifying that Echoes sorties were not launch capable.

Carson and/or Figel would have notified Alph-01, the 10th SMS's squadron command post' notifying the crew of Echo's situation.  The missile crew at Alpha would have then called the 490th SMS's Kilo-01, the Alternate Wing Command Post.  The Kilo crew would have annotated in their logs that all ten of Echo's sorties were off alert.  By then the 10th's squadron commander and operations officer would have been aware of the situation, as well as, the Echo Flight Commander.

If not done so earlier, the Echo crew would have declared a flight-wide security situation.  Echo's FSC would have dispatched both the primary and secondary SATs to investigate the 8 LFs that were not manned.  Though its unclear, a Mobile Fire Team (MFT) located in the November Flight area was requested to check for unusual activity.  The MFT may have been asked to leave their location and render assistance to Echo's two SATs.  It would not have been unreasonable for Delta or Oscar to send one of their SAT teams to provide further assistance.   Though there is no supporting documentation, it is reasonable to assume that one or two Flight Security Officers may have been nearby to render assistance.

By 12 noon, Carlson and Figel would have relinquished the alert to the new on-coming crew.  Once the change over briefing was accomplished and the classified documents were inventoried, the on-coming crew would  handled and monitored the rest of the flight activities.  Carlson and Figel would then have driven back to Malmstrom arriving approximately two hours later.  While they were en route back to base, plans would have been in the process of being devised to bring the sorties back up to operational alert status. SAC would started the planning stage to investigate the shutdowns.  Even though the Echo incident was classified, per Eric Carlson, by the following day, most people in the field, on the base and in the city of Great Falls knew what had happened at Echo.

I can't affirm that this is how the morning went exactly for Eric Carlson and Walter Figel, but based upon the available documentation and statements, I believe that it comes close.  Figel would later tell Robert Hastings that there were maintenance teams on three or four of his LFs, yet based upon current documentation, there were only two LFs with maintenance teams on site.  Where others concentrate strictly on Figel's actions and statements, I've been able to bring Eric Carlson appropriately into the picture...taking command of his flight...Echo Flight.

Note:  I briefly introduced the UFO controversy.  As most know, Figel made statements about his SAT strike teams making claims of UFO sightings.  Those claims will be analyzed, in detail, in a follow on Part II posting.


Robert Hastings, "Did UFOs Cause the Shutdown of ICBMs at Malmstrom AFB, in March 1967?" 12/22/2008

Ryan Dube, Reality Uncovered, "An Interview with Malmstrom AFB Witness Eric Carlson", 09/12/2010


  1. IRT: "Sylvania designed Launch Control Center", I didn't catch that at all; my own research, by way of DoD contract, convinced me that the only aspect of Sylvania's contribution to the 564th SMS was the ground electrical grid. In your opinion, would that require a TOP SECRET clearance or affect Raymond Fowler's need-to-know regarding Echo Flight?

  2. James, how are you!

    Sylvania designed both the LCC and its command and control along with the cabling system to the LFs. I believe the LFs were still Boeing. Grand Forks' three squadrons were Sylvania also. The Sylvania capsules were much larger than the Boeing ones due to the equipment design of the commander's and deputy's consoles plus the diesel generator for back up power and environmental cooling equipment was located in a seperate capsule adjacent to the LCC. What made the Sylvania cabling system unique was the back up capability to send out commands via radio signal (radio command). As far as Fowler working for Slyvania and being involved with Echo's situation he may have been allowed to look at the EMP aspects since that is what SAMSO was doing in the 564th and possibly the radio command aspect of the system could have been affected by EMPs of various natures. Other than that, I can't see what other aspects of the Echo incident that he would have been involved. A periphery player at best. As far as security clearance that would depend on alot of other factors. He would have definitely had no need-to-know for most, if not all of the investigation, IMO. We can discuss at RU in more detail later.

    PS: I just remembered the radio command aspect of the Sylvania while writing this comment. It's amazing how much shit that I've forgotten vs what I remember...LOL