Nuclear Tourism in America: Why I Was Totally Blown Away During My Travels on the Atomic Trail

On a swath of sun-baked Arizona desert on the southern edge of Tucson, a diverse group of curious Cold War obsessives—myself included—is suffering a 105-degree Monday morning as we queue up to board a bus that will take us back in time.

Among the scrum are a camera-wielding British couple dressed like they’re on safari, a group of Russians sporting thick coffeehouse beards, a pair of Korean War vets wearing matching American Legion caps and me. I’ve made the trek to the American Southwest’s “Nuclear Trail” out of a sense of nostalgia for the uneasy times of my childhood.

As the bus takes us to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which holds some of the most powerful weaponry in human history, we are required to show identification and to sign a form acknowledging that we may undergo additional security screening. I’m standing behind a beefy, heavily belt-buckled man in his 60s from Buffalo, New York. He was a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in West Berlin from 1969 to ’71, so it’s more than appropriate to call him a Cold War veteran. As he leans on his cane, he reminisces about his tour of duty with our guide, Bob Ratledge, himself a 74-year-old former Air Force pilot.

“They fired at us just to let us know they were there, and we shot back for the same reason,” says the guy from Buffalo, recalling his time flying American spies over the Berlin Wall. “Of course, we always had the nuclear stuff in the back of our minds,” he adds with a chuckle.

That “nuclear stuff” is why many of us are here. The Pima Air & Space Museum and its tour through the nearby Air Force base are part of the growing Atomic Tourism industry, which—thanks to the more than 20 years that have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent declassification of inactive nuclear weapons—is booming. Add to that a sense that we’re finally at a safe distance from the uneasy peace that the U.S. shared with the Soviets, and sites like Nevada’s National Atomic Testing Museum and New Mexico’s National Museum of Nuclear Science & History have in recent years reported 12 to 20 percent bumps in weekend attendance. Pima itself sees 150,000 visitors a year. Meanwhile, websites like Atomic Traveler are attracting tens of thousands of hits a month and, just two years ago, Bloomsbury USA published a critical nonfiction hit titled, A Nuclear Family Vacation.

As the bus makes its way to Pima, Ratledge addresses the tour with a microphone. Burly and avuncular with gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses, he resembles Ernest Borgnine circa the mid-’80s TV adventure drama “Airwolf”—an appropriate reference considering we’re in close proximity to much of the world’s military airpower. To the west is the Arizona Air National Guard, to the south of that is the defense contractor Raytheon Missile Systems, and we’re currently coming up on the checkpoint for Davis-Monthan—home of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), where martial aircraft are either refurbished or left idle in a place locals call “the Boneyard.”

“Tucson was selected for AMARG and lots of other aviation-related activity because there’s very little rain and humidity and so there’s less erosion of the equipment,” Ratledge says in his North Carolina twang, quickly dismissing conspiracy theories that the Southwest’s connection to the military has to do with aliens landing at Roswell. “There’s also the caliche clay in the soil, which means the heavy aircraft don’t end up sinking into the ground.”

Once through the checkpoint, the bus rolls onto 2,600 acres of scrub brush lined with some 4,000 planes. Against these hulking fuselages covered with heat-resistant polymer, the majestic Rincon mountain range in the distance suddenly looks tiny.

“Over here is a full mile of C-130s,” Ratledge says, pointing to a long row of transport planes. “And over there is the F-111, which President Reagan used to bomb Ghadafi in Libya.” This last bit spurs a 50-something behind me to pull his iPhone out of his floral shirt’s breast pocket and snap a picture.

“Remember where we were when we heard that news?” he whispers to his wife. “Crazy that it was that long ago.” Rumbling past the pointy-nosed F-14s and F-15s, a beefy 50-something in an Army T-shirt eagerly asks Ratledge whether “these are the ones that can carry nukes?” Yes, our guide says somberly, these “can carry both conventional and atomic weapons,” his answer prompting a multilingual murmur of excitement through the cabin.

Notably, Ratledge couches his description of all the firepower not in belligerent language, but in a more measured story of potential wars successfully deterred. Once off the base and back on civilian land, I ask him about that, wondering what visitors are supposed to take away from seeing all this lethal power up close.

“Look, people get excited by the power of these planes and weapons, and it’s true, they can kill lots of people,” he says with a knowing sigh. “But there’s another side that we should all remember—their potential power kept us out of World War III. I think visitors here get to see that. They recognize that if we hadn’t had this power, who knows what would have happened?”

Thankfully, direct combat with the Soviets played itself out more in the 1980s pop cultural arena than on the battlefield. Following the incredibly intense hockey game between the U.S. and the Soviets 
at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Rocky Balboa squared off against Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and, in the WWF, Hulk Hogan regularly took Nikolai Volkoff to the mat. And let’s not forget the television movie “The Day After,” which 30 years ago scared up some of the biggest Nielsen ratings in TV history. The Pima Air & Space Museum is certainly aware of the pop cultural context. Indeed, in its hangars, every plane that has appeared in a blockbuster film is displayed next to its corresponding movie poster.

“We want to give visitors a frame of reference they can relate to,” says Mary Emich, Pima’s director of visitor services. “There’s no better way to do that than through Hollywood.” On my own self-guided tour of the museum’s nearly 200,000 square feet, I come across a nuclear-capable F-14 Tomcat with its attendant poster of Top Gun, a UH-1 helicopter next to a poster of Apocalypse Now, and two 11-foot-high nuclear missile casings accompanying a shrine to the film Dr. Strangelove.

Strangelove, of course, was a reaction to the duck-and-cover hysteria that predictably followed 1963’s Cuban Missile Crisis. It was, in part, Hollywood’s way of satirizing such a potentially catastrophic non-event. The military had a much less cheeky reaction—one buried next to a lonely road 30 miles south of here, just before you hit the Mexican border.

From the surface, the 3.5-acre plot officially called Titan II ICBM Site 571-7 doesn’t look like much. In fact, says a sandpaper-faced repairman and fellow atomic tourist named Butch, “It’s pretty easy to miss—hell, I’ve been driving by this place for years and didn’t even notice it, but I just decided today to pull off because I had to check it out.” Butch, like me, is one of the 55,000 people who will visit this place this year. I imagine everyone initially wonders what we are paying admission for. Up here, it just looks like a tiny post office–sized building, some sci-fi-esque antennas, a few concrete slabs and lots of tumbleweed.

But then, the Titan Missile Museum is not about display cases and dioramas; it is about experiencing a once secret physical environment exactly as it existed during the Cold War. And so the deceptive camouflage that makes this preserved missile silo look unimpressive from the outside is actually part of its strategic design—one that becomes all the more stunning when you behold the giant rocket, command center and troop residence hidden beneath the surface.

Unlike the museum and air base in Tucson, which leaves the aircraft’s destructive power to the imagination, the Titan museum in Sahuarita is explicit about the obliterating capacity of the 9-megaton, 103-foot-tall intercontinental ballistic missile that was housed here from a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis until the early 1980s. A 900-square-mile blast zone; third-degree burns 30 miles away from the detonation site; a map of Tucson showing the “approximate area of complete destruction.” These are just some of the stats flashing on a monitor above the lobby’s 10-foot-tall black shell of a W-53 nuclear warhead—the same kind of ablative shell that sits atop the missile casing that is still housed here.

“Most people come here to see what could have been the end of the world,” says the museum’s historian Chuck Penson when I ask him about why the lobby so openly advertises the apocalyptic implications of the missile. “The questions we typically get are: How big was the weapon? How much damage would it do? How close to a hit could you be and still survive?”

Before Penson and another guide take me, Butch, a pair of bikers and a family of four below ground, we watch a short video explaining that this is the last of 54 such Air Force installations. From there, though, all the usual trappings of a museum melt away as we don hard hats, descend metal stairs, stride through a 6,000-pound steel door and enter another world. In this submarine-like space, civilian clothing instantly seems absurd—the informality of Butch’s dirt-stained gray and yellow work uniform, the Harley guys’ biker boots and my sandals clash with the martial color of the place (that seafoam green common at military sites). Inside the low-ceilinged tunnel that connects the command center to the silo, we are entombed in 8-foot-thick steel-reinforced concrete. Yet everything—even the teenagers’ sneakers—seems to loudly clang through the exposed pipes and wiring because so much in here is made of metal.

“See all these springs everywhere?” asks Penson. Pointing to an SUV-sized coil of steel in one corner and other smaller coils suspending equipment along the wall, he explains: “Everything which is launch critical is connected to a spring to ‘shock isolate’ it from a nuclear blast. That means this whole building is built on springs.”

As if in an amusement park, one of the bikers grabs a pole and tries to shake the floor to see if he can make the spring flex, but Penson laughs and reminds him that “the spring was built to withstand a nuclear explosion, so it doesn’t move unless the Earth does.”

As we take a steel-cage elevator to the bottom of the silo and gaze up at the now-disarmed missile, Penson explains that what we’re really looking at is a study in the kind of meticulous planning and communications redundancy that is now ubiquitous in the 21st-century world of crash-resistant technology and data backup. From the springs to the 9,000 gallons of water needed to suppress the missile engine’s deadly sound, to the multiple codes needed to get into the bunker, to the flame deflectors beneath the missile’s engine, “no contingency was too trivial to be ignored,” he says.

This is hammered home during the chilling climax of the tour—a real-to-life simulation of a launch in the command center. Everything in this cramped room is as it was the day the bunker went offline in 1982—the yellowing manuals, the encoded Mylar reels that held the missile targeting information, the hulking computer panels, the aging blue Air Force jumpsuits and, of course, the keys.

Ah yes, the keys.

“This is the room from WarGames, right?” I ask our guide, referencing the Matthew Broderick blockbuster from 1983. “The one where the guys turn the keys?”

That it is, he says, as Butch whispers, “Oh man, I knew it looked familiar.”

As that film’s first searing scene illustrated, and as a tour guide named Sam now explains, with the right codes entered into the combination dial on the console, those tiny objects were the final bits of metal in a massive doomsday machine.

Step by step, Sam clicks the numbers into the dial. He opens the red safe. The buttons on the console flash. Those of us with cameras quit snapping pictures. The kids on the tour stop fooling around.

The room goes silent.

One of my fellow tourists is asked to put one of the keys into the circuit board as Sam puts an identical one into another slot a few feet away. The countdown begins. The keys are turned in unison. We all flinch as a klaxon alarm breaks the silence.

A mere 58 seconds later—the time it would take to fuel the 330,000-pound missile—the world ends … but it doesn’t.Instead, one of our tour guides smiles and hands the day’s designated tourist-turned-launch-commander a souvenir card that reads, “I turned the key.”

On our way back up to the  surface, I meet fellow atomic tourist Dan Dansro, a crewmember at the Titan site in the 1970s who is visiting from Albuquerque with his wife and two teenage grandsons. Underneath the lobby’s “peace through deterrence” sign, he fondly reminisces about the uncomfortable situations and camaraderie that come with regularly working in a claustrophobic bunker for 24-hour shifts. But the 63-year-old’s expression turns more serious when I ask him what feels like a taboo question—would he have followed the ultimate order from his commanders to turn the Cold War hot?

“The closest I ever got to that was when they told us to get our keys out of the safe,” he says. “It only happened once on my shift, and if it came to that, I would have done what I was trained to do, because I understood the importance of this weapon system.” Looking out across the dirt to the silo cover, he pauses, takes a deep breath, and in a somber voice adds, “The thing is, I never wanted to turn the keys. Never.”


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