A visit to Vilonia's Titan Ranch
I am sure many of you have watched the Disney movie “Remember the Titans,” and while I loved the movie and am a huge Denzel Washington fan, I am focusing on a different group of Titans this month. I am focusing on the Titan II missiles that powered the Gemini space program and were part of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union; 18 Titan II missile silos were in Arkansas.
As a transplant to Arkansas, I am constantly exploring the beauty of The Natural State, meeting great Arkansans, and learning the state’s history, and I learned a lot this month. I grew up in the middle of the Cold War, and movies like “WarGames,” “The Right Stuff,” “Firefox,” “Top Gun,” “Red Dawn” and “The Hunt for Red October” no doubt influenced me to join the submarine force and do my part to help America win the Cold War. While I always knew that America’s nuclear defense strategy was a triad with ballistic missile submarines, strategic bombers and strategic missile silos, I had no idea that Arkansas played so prominently in the land-based leg of this strategic triangle. I also had no idea that the Titan II missile was the rocket that powered the Gemini space program or that 368 Titan rockets were launched over 50 years, carrying vital payloads like the Mars Viking Lander, Voyager deep space probes and reconnaissance and communications satellites, with the final launch being a Titan IV rocket in 2005.
How I learned all of this is also an interesting story. I love working for the cooperatives, which translates to a very busy schedule keeping power and services Affordable, Reliable and Responsible, and I am often guilty of not taking time off from work to be with family. I had promised my wife, Tracy, that I would take some time off this November so we could get away for a week. This plan ultimately got derailed a bit due to, you guessed it, schedule conflicts. My week got cut short to about three days, and that would not allow any kind of long-distance travel, so I Googled “cool things to do in Arkansas.” That is when I first learned about Titan Ranch in Vilonia (titanranch.com).
Titan Ranch is billed as a luxury Titan II Missile Complex, and so I thought, what better place to take Tracy to get away from it all for a few days? If going 50 feet underground into a steel-and-concrete nuclear missile silo couldn’t get me away from work, then nothing could. The facility was designed to be a couples’ getaway experience but also has facilities to host large events and company meetings. The experience did not disappoint; it was truly an amazing adventure and one that instantly went to our Top 10 list of fun things we have done in 35 years of marriage. Let me be clear, this is not the same facility that the airmen stayed in all those years ago; the master bedroom rivaled the nicest hotels I have stayed in. “Modern luxury and technology meet military history and engineering excellence” would be my best description. My dad used to tell me that “Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while,” and, boy, did I find a big one when I stumbled across Titan Ranch. There I was with no plan and the fear of letting Tracy down, and then I found Titan Ranch and totally redeemed myself. It truly is better to be lucky than good sometimes. All too often we look outward for places to go and things to do, all the while oblivious that some of the coolest things to do are right in our own back yard. I will admit that it was a bit surreal to wake up on Veterans Day in a Titan II missile complex, and it dredged up a good bit of my past for sure.
I also love history, and the staff at Titan Ranch did an excellent job on the tour of educating me on the significance Arkansas played in winning the Cold War with the 18 Titan II missile silos operated by airmen from the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville. These silos were manned 24 hours a day for over 20 years, and the crew could launch the Titan II missile in under a minute and deploy the 9-megaton warhead to targets up to 9,000 miles away. To put that into context, we learned during the tour given by owner GT Hill, “Every bullet and bomb used in World War II, including the two atomic bombs, was only half the yield of what a Titan II was capable of.”
We also learned about the Damascus incident in 1980, which left one dead and 21 injured. A Titan II missile in Damascus developed a fuel leak, due to a dropped socket during maintenance. This caused a serious explosion that blew the 740-ton silo door over 200 feet in the air and about 600 feet away from the silo.
Thankfully, these weapons were never required to be used but they did epitomize President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote of “Speak softly and carry a big stick” to maintain peace during a time of intense geopolitical tensions. The U.S. Air Force destroyed these facilities using explosives to cave in and decommission the sites when the Titan II missiles were removed as part of the SALT II treaty between the U.S. and the USSR.
Hill purchased the facility (Titan II ICBM Launch Complex 373-9 Site) in Vilonia, excavated it, and completely renovated it into the amazing facility that it is today. Christmas is right around the corner, and if you are searching the internet for something to purchase your significant other or a family member that isn’t a new sweater, tie, or something else that they may not use, consider giving them a memorable experience this year. Titan Ranch is the only facility of its kind in the world; it is located less than an hour from Little Rock, and it is a truly unique, historic and educational adventure. Our experience was a blast (pun intended).
Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year from the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.