A 'moral obligation' in Washington

Aging Cold Warriors are challenging the Air Force to come clean

The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas makes a campy nod to Cold War grotesqueries, but the most interesting part of what happened to our nuclear missiles remains covered up.

The day that changed David Schindele’s life began over breakfast in the summer of 1966, as he watched morning TV reports about UFOs buzzing rural Mohall, North Dakota, overnight. He kept it under his hat as he prepared to report for routine “alert duty” at nearby Minot Air Force Base.

MAFB was home to the 455th Strategic Missile Wing, locked and loaded with 150 Minuteman I nuclear weapons, each fitted with a one megaton-yield W59 warhead. By contrast, the beta-version bombs that vaporized Hiroshima and Nagasaki generated somewhere between 12 and 23 kilotons apiece.

As a deputy missile combat crew commander, Schindele was among the 15 two-man teams about to relieve their night-shift counterparts in blast-proof silos buried 60 feet below the ground and separated from each other by miles of prairie. Each launch control facility (LCF) commanded 10 missiles, or “flights.” Schindele was assigned to November Flight, just three miles west of Mohall.

During group briefings at HQ, the teams were told there was a problem at November, that a number of missiles had, without explanation, gone “off alert.” As they began to disperse, Schindele’s fellow airmen talked about the UFO reports over Mohall, wondering.

When Schindele arrived at his LCF, the rattled shift site manager told him they’d all seen it last night – everybody but those working the silos below. The thing was silent, disc-shaped, flashing lights that were difficult to describe. From behind windows, they watched its approach, which seemed almost stagey. It glided clockwise around the LCF perimeter before hovering at the front gate. Armed guards at the security post watched it draw to within 60-80 feet of the LCF, but they refused to leave the building to confront it.

Upon descending into the launch control center (LCC) below, Schindele was informed the entire battery had been disabled, all 10 missiles. The control board confirmed their off-alert status. Outgoing crew members had been blind to events upstairs last night, but their frenzied exchanges with security occurred just as the board went nuts and the Minuteman nukes blinked out. Schindele recalls being struck by his colleagues’ “feelings of awe and wonder,” but muted by a “sense of helplessness.”

The intruder had vanished as if it never existed. The LCF contacted Squadron Command, which dispatched maintenance crews, which in turn reported guidance and control failures for the entire November Flight. Over the course of his career, Schindele remembered unscheduled spoofs conducted periodically by Strategic Air Command to test missile security and readiness; in those cases, maybe one or two missiles would go down – but never 10 at once. For SAC, it was challenging enough to keep the desired minimum 95 percent of the finicky nukes ready for launch at any given time.

Another puzzle: An attack on America’s WMD would likely involve, among other things, blanket power failures, probably via electromotive force or electromagnetic pulse. “But somehow,” Schindele recalls, “the object was able to send specific signals to our missiles without affecting or shutting down the LCC and its electrical power.”

What really stuck in his craw, though, was what happened after his mercifully uneventful 24-hour shift ended. Attempting to question a flight security controller about what he’d seen earlier, Schindele was informed that he, the FSC, was under a gag order. Schidele’s CO backed up the FSC. The word had come down from on high at the USAF Office of Special Investigations. “As far as you are concerned,” Schindele was told, “it never happened.”  

‘It Never Happened’ would become the title of Schindele’s 400-page contextual accounting of how November Flight, and its holstered firepower of 550 Hiroshima-sized catastrophes, was temporarily eviscerated by a single UFO. But it would be decades before he felt empowered enough to write a book. Though he hadn’t signed a formal nondisclosure agreement, Schindele felt duty-bound to follow orders. So he fumed inwards, worrying – he later wrote – about who was most at risk from the ensuing radio silence:

“We were never instructed on what to do if such an incident should ever happen again … We were all left in limbo, and left on our own to conjure in our minds how other similar situations might unfold … Other missile crews were also left in the dark, with no knowledge of our incident, or the fact that they might potentially be involved in a future incident.”

Schindele left the Air Force with a captain’s rank, believing he’d take the secret to his grave. In 2001, however, he caught the testimony of fellow retired USAF captain Robert Salas at the National Press Club during the Disclosure Project conference. Salas’ now-famous encounter was a near mirror image of Minot: a Strategic Air Command outpost in the northern plains; the late-night appearance of UFOs at Malmstrom AFB; a topside security freak out, powerless to stop it; Salas monitoring the LCC control board as all 10 Minuteman missiles went offline. And p.s.: Shut up about it.

In 2005, Salas would detail the ordeal in his book Faded Giant. He would occasionally appear on CNN with Larry King, and in 2010 he returned once more to the National Press Club alongside six fellow airmen, all sharing stories of disruptive UFO incursions into USAF bases stocked with nuclear arms.

Inspired, Schindele sought out and reconnected with old USAF colleagues online, discovering multiple SAC base/UFO encounters along the way. One of the most gripping was recounted by retired lieutenant Dave Schuur, a missile launch officer at Minot. Sometime in 1966-67 – Schurr couldn’t remember the exact date, he was ordered to forget about it – as guards reported a UFO above the LCF, the subterranean boards at Echo Flight lit up, indicating several missiles had switched to “launch in progress” mode. Schurr’s crew had to flip the “inhibit” switch to avert the sequence.

Schindele began inching into the public sphere in 2010 when he started his own related blog. He was contacted shortly thereafter by longtime researcher Robert Hastings, author of 2008’s UFOs and Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites. Hastings has accumulated more than 150 eyewitness accounts from veterans or civilian contractors, and he organized the 2010 veterans’ press conference that Salas attended in Washington. None of his sources, Hastings assured Schindele, had ever been harassed by the government for airing it out.

In 2013, Schindele joined activist Stephen Bassett’s week-long Citizen Hearing on Disclosure in Washington, D.C., where he contributed additional testimony surrounding the UFO coverup. He went on to publish ‘It Never Happened’ just months before public interest went through the roof in December 2017. That’s when the New York Times exposed the Pentagon’s secret $22 million UAP research program and dislodged the controversy from the fringe into the mainstream.

Thanks to a successful crowd-sourcing campaign, Salas invited the 80-year-old Schindele to the National Press Club next week for a press conference and what could be the last public stage for aging American Cold War missileers. Their goal is to warn newly engaged policymakers about the vulnerabilities of our nuclear arsenal to intruders who have demonstrably exploited them. Two other veteran airmen who’ve shared their stories before, back before Congress and most of the mainstream media were listening, will appear as well.

Retired lieutenant and former missile targeting officer Robert Jamison, 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron, Minot AFB, is ready to talk about being called to work a 10-missile shutdown at Oscar Flight in March 1967, quite possibly the same incident that crippled Salas’ warheads. Minot was jangled by multiple encounters over the next couple of weeks. During the Oscar alert, Jamison and his crew were detained from entering the missile fields for two hours before the UFOs dispersed.

Then there’s Dr. Bob Jacobs, professor emeritus of the communication school at Bradley University. In September 1964, Jacobs was with the Western Test Range, 1639th Photographic Squadron, Vandenberg AFB, when, if what he says is true, quite possibly the military’s most dramatic UFO footage ever was acquired on his watch. This one is called the Big Sur Incident.

After stage separation from an Atlas ICBM, as the nose-cone warhead of a dummy nuke hurtled downrange toward Eniwetok in the Pacific, it was pursued by a disc-shaped UFO. The bogey circled the payload, struck it from four different angles with rays of light, and sent it into a tumble that plunged into the ocean, hundreds of miles shy of its target. Jacobs says the spectacle was captured with state-of-the-art cameras on 35mm film. But the footage has never been released.

Film or no film, the Air Force has much to answer for here. While the Navy has publicly revamped its guidelines for reporting UAP incidents in response to the growing number of its personnel speaking up over the past four years, the USAF has remained rigidly silent. So Tuesday’s press conference should present the bureaucracy directly responsible for defending our skies with a legitimate PR problem. Its veterans have served our nation with honor, but they have been forced to endure in silence what they knew about gaping holes in security surrounding our extinction-grade weaponry. They deserve our full attention now.

Schindele says a “moral obligation” is compelling him to Washington. As he writes in ‘It Never Happened,’ “My integrity is the primary reason the Air Force originally put faith and trust in me, but maintaining that integrity now requires that my silence (has) a voice . . . I do have first-hand experience with the fact that the Air Force does not want the American public and the rest of the world to know. Where is the justification for that?”

The USAF veterans press conference is scheduled to be streamed here at 8:30 am. Tuesday.