Explosive beginnings

Hawk Le véhicule de chargement/déchargement des lanceurs Hawk. © U.S.Army.

Loading of a Hawk launcher. © U.S.Army.
September 1988. I'm twenty years old and I have just passed the tough BCO training at the Air Defense Artillery School of Lombardsijde. After several hours of an exhausting journey by train and bus, I arrived at Essentho (Nordrhein-Westfalen), home of the 62nd Hawk missiles battalion. The place is downright lugubrious; the barracks are positioned on a wet plateau beaten by the wind. Moreover, I learn that I'm at the wrong address. I was assigned to the Alpha battery, which has its own quarters in the town of Korbach, still farther east. I spent the last thirty kilometers in the back of a supply truck, chilled in my nice dress uniform. The reception at Korbach was much better. My three fellow officers were special guys who welcome me warmly. I had a comfortable room and spent the evening discovering the charming town with my fire team. My Battery Control Assistant (BCA) was not only the unit’s most experienced officer, but also a veteran who knew his way around in all the local taverns...

Hawk MIM-23B "Improved Hawk". © Collection M.Wyffels. After this memorable night, the first few weeks were spent on completing my training. I discovered with dismay that I still had much to learn. My room was littered with technical manuals and I spent the evenings in a shielded room to learn the secrets of the 2.ATAF procedures (2nd Allied Tactical Air Force). A month later, I was finally cleared for my first duty period on the missile site at Flechtdorf. The day had just begun when a sergeant asked me to direct the unloading of missiles as security officer (OS). I had no idea of what to do. Fortunately, the role of the OS was normally limited to be present. My men were experts and knew very well what to do, but an officer had to be present because ‘that's the rule’. The loading/unloading was done with a tracked vehicle with three arms to move the missiles from transport pallets to the launchers and vice versa. I was watching the operation and did my best to not interfere and especially to avoid to be crushed... The driver extended the articulated arms over the missiles and two soldiers unlocked one missile from the launcher under the eyes of an experienced sergeant technician. The operator then activated a joystick to operate the arms in order to move the missile. Suddenly, the driver screamed, jumped from the vehicle and ran away, together with the rest of the team. They dove into a trench twenty yards away while I remained standing alone beside the missiles.


Then I noticed a strange hissing sound coming from the weapon. Ignoring my courage, I joined my men and ran to their hiding place... After a few seconds, it seemed that nothing had exploded and we were still alive. The sergeant explained that the first missile fell out of the arm onto the launcher. I did not notice... The problem was that the firing system was designed to activate when accelerating at the start... or a similar shock. The question now was whether the shock was violent enough to arm the missile. If so, it could explode at any moment, so I was told. To find out, there was only one solution. A person should go alone to connect a control box to the launcher (called an ‘umbilical’). This connector which was used only in case of war was normally covered with a shorting plug designed to prevent an inadvertent launch. According to the technical procedure, you guessed it, that person should be a safety officer (me…). After the team had moved on the other side of the firing mound (one can’t ever be too careful), I approached the launcher while unrolling behind me the cable of a field telephone. It seemed indeed that even the emission of a walkie-talkie could cause an explosion. Under the guidance of a technician who was safely installed in the shelter, I removed the cover on which it was written in red ‘Danger - Do Not Remove’. Then I switched on a diagnosis box fitted with some lights and a button on which an American had found it useful to print the words ‘Press Here’. A second later, a green light turned on; that was probably a good sign. The chief repairman arrived with some equipment to ‘check the voltages’. Soon, he confirmed the absence of danger and we examined the damage more closely. In fact, the hissing that I heard came from the inert gas with which the missiles were filled. The gas had escaped from a long crack in the radome. The missile was broken. I was told that it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not bad for a first day of work! The investigation committee soon came on the scene discovering the cause of the accident. The ‘rotating sector’ on which the missile was placed had tipped over, causing the fall of the missile. Normally, that part moved only when a missile was fired but the latch was defective. After that, the launchers of all Hawk sites were checked. Only some parts proved to be defective. Why did it have to be me...?

Operational Readiness Evaluation

Hawk Les radars devaient tourner de concert avec une grande précision. Ici, un PAR et un ROR. © L.Schmitz.

The radars revolutions had to be synchronized together with a great precision. Here a PAR (left) and a ROR. © L.Schmitz.
The obsession of every BCO was the ORE: ‘Operational Readiness Evaluation’. A team of evaluators (nationals or NATO) came at the gate of the site and commanded ‘Go to Blazing Skies’. Once on alert, which could not last more than twenty minutes, the evaluators checked whether all the equipment operated according to the criteria established by NATO. The ORE was qualified by a score ‘Excellent’, ‘Satisfactory’, ‘Unsatisfactory’ or ‘Marginal’. Watch out if you got one of the last two notes! That's exactly what happened to me during my first ORE... I had checked the alignment of the radars, which had to revolve synchronized. This procedure had to be accurate to 10 ‘thousands’ near or less than one angle degree. However, the evaluator had measured a gap of 25 ‘thousands’ on the console of the CWAR. This would not have prevented the battery to shoot down enemy planes, but hey, these were the rules. The problem was that I was sure to have not made a mistake: my alignment was just pin-point perfect! Then the evaluator asked me with a smile: "Was the door open this morning?” I looked at him bewildered. What was the relation with the alignment of the radars??? The officer then disconnected the huge air conditioner which was hanging outside the BCC and proceeded to a new control. This time, there was not even the slightest misalignment! The air conditioner was used to cool the electronics and worked continuously excepted when the door was open... He explained that during the alert, the power supply was switched from main current to diesel generator power. The current provided by the latter mean was less stable and when the air conditioner was switched on, the voltage dropped slightly, but enough to alter the calibration of the electronics. This phenomenon did not occur at the artillery school where the power was never supplied by generators. During the alignment procedure, we had not only to use the power generators, but also connect the air conditioner, and remember to close the door... A few years later, it was my turn to fail a rookie who committed the same mistake...

NATO UNCLASSIFIED Le contenu de cet article est basé sur des sources appartenant au domaine public et ne comporte aucun renseignement actuellement classifié.

The content of this article is based on sources in the public domain and it contains no currently classified information.

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