Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Cloud That Ate Minot

 Well, it seemed this big at the time!

As Winter dragged on in Minot I began to get more and more frustrated with my radio job.  You see I hadn't begun to appreciate the most important thing about being a radio personality... that it's all about the audience, not you.  I had an intense interest in these new performers, and assumed that my audience did as well.   When it was 20 below outside the listeners were more concerned about the weather.  When grain prices were down, the farmers (who comprised 80% of the audience) were more concerned about that.  The rock-n-roll bands of the day were irrelevant to them.

As Spring arrived I began to sense a new chattiness among my fellow hitch hikers at G.I. Corner.  As soon as we went from parkas to field jackets, everybody lightened up.  The foreboding of Winter was over for another year.

On day I was called upon to do an Ammonia service on a missile, Anhydrous Ammonia was used in the missile cooling system.  Now this was seriously dangerous stuff! At 99.8% pure, Anhydrous Ammonia is highly toxic and corrosive, it'll burn you instantly on contact.   We were required to wear a full coverage rubber suit with gloves, boots and a huge headpiece under which we wore a Scott Air Pack consisting of a mask, hose and oxygen tank.  When you suited up in one of these you could hardly move.  The Ammonia line was encased in woven steel, at the end was a quick disconnect fitting which was described in tech school as “absolutely foolproof.”   It had three, spring loaded ball bearings located at 120 degree intervals around the circumference.  When, and only when the fitting was perfectly mated to the receptacle, would the bearings be depressed fully.  That allowed the disconnect to turn, lock into the receptacle and the valve to open.

Fool proof!

There were to be two, fully suited techs on station at all times so Johnnie P came along to supervise.  Now as I mentioned previously, John had been in the Air Force for 956 years.  He'd performed hundreds of these services and never had a problem.  He had no issue wearing the suit, but he was damned if he was going to wear that lousy head gear and that was that!

I climbed up on the wing as John opened the NH3 valve on the service cart.  We always had a hell of a time seating that disconnect just right so the hose valve would open, especially with that suit on.  I struggled with it for several minutes.  I could tell John was getting antsy, “C'mon Berg, get it hooked up will you?” he said.   “I'm trying, the damned thing won't connect” I shot back.  I gave it a good shove and turned the valve. HEY it was opening up, success!!”

Not quite.

The “fool proof” valve wasn't seated after all.  I heard a “pppppppppppttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt” as the valve opened and the Ammonia started pouring out in a thick, white cloud of gas.   There was no way of closing the hose valve without it being seated to the receptacle, so all I could do is watch helplessly as 160 gallons of the stuff escaped into the air

Now Johnny P was a black guy, but the last thing I saw before the gas cloud enveloped me was his face turning white.  His eyes got as big as saucers and away he ran, making a straight beeline to the hanger.   I could hear the clomp, clomp, clomp of those huge, rubber boots as he ran.  For my part, I was just fine, the suit protected me perfectly and the Scott Air Pack enabled me to breath with no problem at all.  I climbed down from the wing, stood under the shower to wash off any Ammonia residue from the suit and sloshed up to the hanger.

When I got there I went straight to the control room where I encountered Johnny P  yelling “Berg's out there, we got to get him, he's in trouble...”  All the while I was standing right behind him, dripping water all over the nicely polished floor.

Once it was determined that I was, in fact, alive and well we all went over the the hanger door overlooking the service pad, and there it was... a HUGE, white cloud of poisonous Ammonia slowly making it's way across the field as a light wind carried it away.  The tank was completely empty now, so this cloud consisted of 160 gallons of pure NH3.  If you've seen the movie “The Blob” you'll get a sense of what this thing looked like as it made it's way toward the end of the flight line, and the 3 or 4 Air Police trucks parked there.  I've never seen AP trucks move so fast!  Those guys high-tailed it out of there RIGHT NOW, leaving their doughnut boxes behind!

The cloud dissipated as it left the confines of the base.   Two days later all the vegetation in it's path died.   A week later there was 2 feet of grass in the same path.  Ammonia is used as fertilizer you know, that's what the “N” in NH3 is for... Nitrogen.

But the damage had been done.  Even though it wasn't my fault, somebody had to pay for the incident.   I began to appreciate a nasty, little fact about the Air Force.  The higher authorities would always demand a scapegoat, and 9 out of 10 times that scapegoat would be a lower grade Fly Boy... in this case me.  The commander called me in his office. “Listen Berg, we have to give them their pound of flesh.  I've gotta put you on detail.  Starting next week you'll be on the 'Base Beautification' project.  It'll be easy, plant a couple of flowers, take a long lunch... nothing to it, OK?”

“OK sir”

So this is how the Air Force worked, cover your own ass first.  To say I was disillusioned was the understatement of the year.  I lost all respect for the Air Force right there and then and to make it worse, I still had nearly 3 years to go in my hitch.

Oh, and about that “fool proof” valve... I guess it all depends on the fool.

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