The Titan I Missile


I joined the U.S. Air Force (1958-59) after graduation from Elizabeth City High School. After partial Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, I was sent to Chanute AFB in Rantoul, IL, to finish Basic and attend school for aircraft missile pneumatics and hydraulics. Upon graduation in January of 1959, I was stationed at Patrick AFB in Cocoa Beach, Florida, with my assigned duty at Cape Canaveral. I was with the 6555th Aerospace Test Wing, where I worked alongside civilians with the Martin Co., the contractor for the Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile {ICBM}. I worked at Launch Complex 19 {LC 19}, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. I participated in preparing for the first launch from this new launch pad with the two-stage Titan I.

Once on the night shift, I arrived at work just after the first attempted missile launch, to a somber atmosphere with engineers and technicians in tears. The missile B5 blew up on the pad at 4 PM on 14 August 1959. The premature umbilical release caused a shutdown command at T+5 seconds, which caused the missile to fall back onto the pad and explode into the flame bucket. The incident put the launch pad out of commission for about six months.

On 10 April 1961, I was working on the Titan I missile serial number M-1 which involved an accident". I had the job of pressurizing the Auto Pilot also called Control Can or Gyros.  It was about the size of a large basketball located at the top inside area of the approximately 100-foot missile in the guidance bay. It houses the electronics which send control signals to the engines {rocket motors} while in flight for yaw, pitch, and roll.


I had a portable panel with about three gauges and several valves and flexible hose which could be connected to the gantry’s stationary nitrogen supply.  The mission: raise the internal pressure in the Auto Pilot from 14 PSI to 25 PSI with the nitrogen. While pressurizing the Auto Pilot, the pressure gauge was not giving a correct read; I attempted to increase pressure one more time — the Auto Pilot can exploded!  Stunned, shocked falling backward, a sergeant also working on the top level of the gantry, caught and laid me out on the floor. I just knew I was dead, seriously! My eyeballs were fractured I had to be dead! After some time passed, another sergeant shouted to those around, “Get those cracked eyeglasses off the airman!” I was to visit the dispensary at Cape Canaveral and then transferred to the hospital at Patrick AFB. I did have fragments of glass on my eyes which were removed as well as a piece I was able to extract after leaving.

Why? A gauge. Inside a mechanical pressure gauge behind the dial, there is a curved part called a Bourdon Tube which makes the dial respond to pressure.  It had a leak/break, which caused me to over pressurize to 500 PSI, exploding the titanium or aluminum Control Can. M-1 was to later be launched on 24 June unsuccessfully because of Second stage hydraulics failure.

Richard Walter