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Air Force Missile Combat Crews

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Missile Combat Crews

Sixty feet underground, 1st Lt. Nancy Satterfield and 2nd Lt. Eric Doctor refer to one of many manuals used for checking equipment at their control station.

Official USAF Photo
by Airman 1st Class Danny Monahan

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Officers from the 742nd Missile Squadron and others like them continue to carry on a 40-year legacy by pulling alert at a seemingly plain-looking wooden building on the North Dakota prairie. Located 60 feet below is the most important part of the facility -- a steel-reinforced capsule no larger than a tractor trailer.

Located across 8,500 square miles, there are 150 launch facilities each housing one Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Each launcher is remotely connected to missile alert facilities labeled Alpha through Oscar.

For 24 hours at a time, missile combat crewmembers, commonly known as missileers, safeguard the launch facilities during their tour of duty beneath the Earth’s surface. People like 1st Lt. Nancy Satterfield, commander, and 2nd Lt. Eric Doctor, deputy commander, monitor the missiles to ensure they are ready to launch at all times while ensuring no one illegally enters the site.

The computers in the capsules are interconnected with each launch facility and capsule within the squadron. From their seats, the missileers keep an eye on everything from a missile several miles away to the blast door 10 feet away from them.

“We can monitor everything. We just can’t physically see it,” said Lieutenant Satterfield, as she described the complex’s security features.

Inside the capsule, the computers run a control station. In front of the control station are two chairs for the missileers that slide on rails. Each capsule comes complete with a toilet, television, bed, microwave and refrigerator.

But the 24-hour job does not entail nonstop work. As long as one person is monitoring the missiles, the other one can rest.

“In our down time, we can watch DVDs, and we have satellite TV,” Lieutenant Doctor said. “I’ll try to sleep for a few hours every night.”

The missileers are surrounded by electronic components encased in hardened aluminum which look older than the two controllers operating them.

Above their control station is one binder after another filled with information to solve the tiniest of problems the missileers may have.

“We don’t have to have the books memorized, but we have to be very familiar with them,” Lieutenant Doctor said. “We have to be able to grab (one) and know exactly where we’re opening it to.”

Becoming a missileer and maintaining the craft is difficult work. Each month, missileers have several tests, including proficiency “rides” in the base’s missile procedures trainer.

“It’s like a pilot’s training simulator only it’s for missileers,” Lieutenant Doctor said. “One of the drawbacks is there’s a lot of studying. I do a lot of that down here.”

Being in such tight quarters might bother a lot of people.

“It’s not the claustrophobia that bothers most people; it’s being 60 feet below ground,” said Lieutenant Satterfield, referring to the isolation. “We don’t have (personal) computers. There’s no Internet (and) no laptop. The computers down here just monitor the missiles. That makes you feel isolated, but we have phones. We can contact everyone without physically seeing them.”

The missileers said there are some quirky aspects that come with the job.

“It’s always 62 degrees in here,” said Lieutenant Satterfield, describing the climate control keeping the equipment at a perfect temperature. “No matter how cold or hot it is outside, it is always 62 degrees in here.”

“What’s weird to me is two people have been in this room at all times for the last 40 years nonstop,” Lieutenant Doctor said.

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