Every Minute Counts

Meet a Boeing team that helps keep missiles mission-ready

March 21, 2017 in Defense

Little Mountain Test Facility sits on the edge of the Utah desert, among the sagebrush and jagged rock outcroppings, not far from the receding Great Salt Lake. In this isolated setting, the past meets the present -- 1950s-era buildings filled with modern equipment.

The primary function of the long-standing military site: Keep the Boeing-built Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, and associated systems operational for the U.S. Air Force at all times.

Boeing employees assigned to Little Mountain’s laboratories repeatedly test and upgrade a weapon system designed to last 10 years that is now more than five decades old. The Minuteman serves as a ready deterrent and effective peacekeeper with its presence alone.

Boeing produced the 450 Minuteman III missiles that the U.S. Air Force maintains in underground silos in the nearby states of Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, said Kelly Johnson, Boeing program manager for ICBM systems. The first variant, the nearly 60-foot-long (18-meter) Minuteman I, went on alert in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. The missile twice received model upgrades over the ensuing decades and continues to discourage an attack on American soil. It remains part of a U.S. nuclear triad that involves Air Force bombers and the Navy’s Ohio-class submarines.

A replacement for the Minuteman III, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, is coming. In October, Boeing submitted a proposal to the Air Force for the development phase of the program. A decision is expected this year.

“We were the original manufacturers, designers and sustainers of the Minuteman,” said Ted Kerzie, Boeing director of Minuteman programs. The Air Force selected Boeing as assembly and test contractor for the Minuteman missile on Oct. 9, 1958. At its peak, the Minuteman program employed 39,700 people at Boeing sites in Seattle and at the missile final assembly site, Plant 77 in Ogden, Utah.

Boeing currently devotes more than 700 employees nationwide to the Minuteman effort. They work at each of the missile wings, in several facilities across northern Utah, in Huntington Beach, Calif., and at a repair center in Ohio. Program leaders have offices at Hill Air Force Base, south of Ogden, Utah, next to their military customer.

Little Mountain, an Air Force facility operated by Boeing and located west of Ogden, is crucial to the development and sustainment of the Minuteman. Boeing annually tests the hardness integrity of missile subsections to ensure there is no degradation from aging, maintenance, repair or continuous operation. During radiation testing, employees monitor computer screens and call out instructions. They collect data that will be analyzed. They wait for an all-clear signal to exit the room.

“These are war games, in a sense,” said Kelly John, Little Mountain radiation manager. “We need to make sure the weapons are going to work when needed.”

Boeing personnel wear a pair of radiation monitors that provide short- and long-term exposure readings. As a precaution, individuals must insert a numbered key into a corresponding slot to indicate his or her presence in the lab before the doors are locked and a test can proceed. Twelve feet (nearly 4 meters) of reinforced concrete separate the steel-paneled test lab and connecting data center for radiation protection.

“In this particular type of work, you always need to be perfect,” said Russell Mueller, a test and evaluation engineer. “You have to determine readiness, and the best way to do that is with testing.”

Little Mountain, which opened in 1957 to test the Boeing-built Bomarc ramjet missile and converted to a Minuteman test site in 1974, has reported no workplace safety incidents, serious injuries or lost workdays due to accident for more than 15 years, according to Henry Moeller, Boeing test engineer.

“We take safety very seriously here,” he said.

In the electromagnetic effects lab, which resembles a soundproof studio, Boeing engineers ensure that Minuteman launch systems aren’t being compromised. Every electronic item brought into a missile silo by Air Force personnel, even comfort items such as an electric toothbrush or razor, is tested at Little Mountain, according to Phil Kesler, electro­magnetic effects manager.

“It’s something new every day,” Kesler said of his lab. “It keeps you always looking, always learning.”

In the shock and vibration lab, located in a separate building, engineers test Minuteman parts using more than a dozen unique test stands, including shakers, shock testers, a centrifuge, environmental chambers and an ordnance facility. They can simulate a truck traveling down a dirt roadway and the effects the uneven surface might have on a transported Minuteman.

“I didn’t know how much Little Mountain was doing for us until I started working here -- it’s pretty incredible,” said Jim Cyr, a 25-year Boeing maintenance mechanic, with 11 spent at the test facility. “Once you dig into it, it boggles your mind. It lets you sleep at night.”

Chuck Simpson, a test and maintenance engineer, has been with Boeing for 54 years and has worked at the Little Mountain complex for 40 years. He came to Boeing just months after Minuteman I went into service.

Simpson repairs test equipment used in the shock and vibration lab, and he’s training others to fix the shakers, amplifiers and other equipment in the lab. In more than half a century, Simpson has seen plenty of change. When he first started with Boeing, the transistor was just coming into focus; now millions of them can be found on a tiny chip in the lab.

“It has been exciting for me to stay abreast of current technology -- and this job certainly requires it,” he said.

While the team at Little Mountain examines Minuteman details in close quarters, California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base conducts a handful of test missile launches a year. In each, an unarmed Minuteman is propelled thousands of miles to a target area in a remote region of the Pacific Ocean, said Kerzie, the director of Minuteman programs.

Even with all of this work going on behind the scenes in Utah, the Minuteman missile doesn’t command a lot of outside attention. Most people don’t readily know the weapon system exists, which, as a deterrent, is the way it should be, Kerzie said.

“The general public doesn’t realize we still have the ICBMs and that they’re providing deterrence 24/7. That’s attributed to the fact that we, at The Boeing Company, designed them so well.”

By Dan Raley