Crete (NAMFI Nike Firings) Trip Report
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Also see Crete stories, Larry Rogers' NAMFI Prize
Table of Contents
On the return trip, a side trip to Bletchley Park
- Getting Ready
- The Lovely Town of Hania
- Searching for the range
- Allowed on base only one hour, which hour?
- 10 - 9 - 8 - ... - 1 - FIRE
- Unexpected Souvenirs :-))
I (Ed Thelen) heard that there would be Nike firings at NAMFI (NATO Missile Firing range) on Crete on about July 1, 1998. I had never seen (with my eyes) a Nike firing. (Much less drama watching a scope.) Since I now have the happy combination of sufficient time and sufficient money (as well as good heath), a trip seemed to be a "good thing" to do.
I was advised that a FAX to the commanding general was the proper method of requesting access to a firing. So I sent a hopefully appealing FAX to "General Papadomanolakis, Commanding Officer - NAMFI - FAX 30 821 66055". I requested "permission to:
- visit the NAMFI site, especially the Radar/Control area,
- talk with site people, take pictures, buy souvenirs,
- spend several days and see more NIKE things than most tourists,
- and maybe visit the Range Control building during the shoot."
Frankly I wrote everything that might be helpful. I mentioned Bud Halsey, manager of SF-88 (he had kindly sent some site business cards in support of this adventure). [Bud has since died.] I mentioned this web site. I mentioned my military experience. That was one of the most carefully crafted one page request letters you ever saw.
The response granted permission to a view of the launching. OK, that is good enough - and maybe I can negotiate more when I get there.
I got the tickets - you do not want to hear that story!
Got a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit as a toy and to potentially help me from getting grossly lost. A friend recommended that I get lots of practice with the complexities and functions before the trip.
I arrived in Athens. A friend advised that I take the ferry to Crete - a good way to meet "real Greeks" and "real Cretans" (there may be a slight difference).
The Lovely Town of Hania
I arrived in Hania, Crete. The name of the town is spelled at least 5 different ways - including the "Xania" that appears on buses going from the ferry terminal to the town.
First I got an old fashioned room (no phone, water, air conditioner) with a beautiful view of the old harbor of Hania. Then I discovered that it was damn hot, I needed a shower right now - not after the sun warmed up the water tank - and that I desperately needed a phone to try to find out how to get a pass and to contact friends and to receive phone messages. So I moved to a soulless hotel with many conveniences.
Searching for the range
Where was NAMFI? It is not on any map. Everyone had an opinion, all agreed it was on a peninsula North East of town, out near the airport, but east of the airport? north of the airport, west of the airport? No opinions agreed. Fearing the 3rd world type traffic (flows along with out many stop signs), I rented a motor scooter, and set to work to find it. Eventually I found what had to be the NAMFI guard gate high on the north ridge.
I still did not have a pass, only a letter saying that I could get a pass. On Tuesday, the day before the shoot, I got connected up with the correct security office that had a copy of the letter from the general. I went, after some more random searching, to the correct Head Quarters and to the security office. While getting the pass, I was advised that the firing would be on Wednesday between 9:00 and 12:00 A.M., but that I could only stay one hour - I could pick the hour. This was worrisome to say the least!
Allowed on base only one hour, which hour?
Another friend stated that once I got on the base, no one would eject me. So I showed up at the gate at 9:00 exactly. The guard looked at my clip-on pass and my letter and called his superior. The superior came over and said in excellent English, and in a very cheerful manner "You will have exactly one hour on this base. At the end of the hour, your escort will bring you to this gate, and you will have to leave. Is that OK with you?" Well - not exactly - He sounded a great deal more cheerful than I felt! However he was willing to help find out when the most advantageous time to start the one hour would be. He made a phone call and advised me that 10:45 would be a good time to enter the base.
I drove back down the big hill to the civilian airport bookstore and read of the WW-II battle to keep the Germans off of Crete, and the battles by the Cretans and the British against the German occupation. Brutal!
At exactly 10:45 I was again at the NAMFI viewing area front gate. I acquired a silent escort who could speak English - but did not wish to get drawn into conversation with me.
I drove about 150 meters further, going further up and around a bend. There was a building with a general's car in front (little red flags attached to the front bumper). I parked along side the building. We got out of the car and I put my camera equipment over my shoulder.
WHAT?? No camera allowed?? No document said specifically that I could use a camera - so the camera stayed in the car! Bother!
We went maybe 70 meters further up the road to the visitor's viewing building. A Spartan concrete structure with maybe 150 seats in about 8 steep rows as in a big screen theater - but instead of a big screen there was a set of very large windows with a GREAT view of the launching area maybe 150 meters below and 800 meters away. The window glass seemed very good as checked by moving my head from side to side.
Down there, to the front left, were 3 Nike launchers, erect, each with a Hercules missile, with enough side rail to hold one extra missile. The extra missiles were much closer to the erect missiles than at SF-88 and at the Nike site that I had worked at. Maybe experience has shown that extra missiles can be much closer to the launcher, and not be disturbed much by the booster blast? NAMFI Nike Launchers from Rolf Dieter Görigk 53 K bytes There was other equipment, some of which looked like Hawk illuminator radars.
The "theater" was almost empty. There were about 6 people in uniform (not including my escort who was in fatigues) and 2 others in civilian clothes. Every one was in the back two rows - so I sat there also. It was very quiet - no one talked - after several minutes I figured that I wanted to be low and in the front to see the higher angle part of the Nike flight.
I signed to my escort that I wanted to move further down, and he nodded. Soon I was holding out my arm and sighting along the automobile key to try to guess the distance to the 40 foot high Hercules missile and booster. The silence continued. I was trying to remember how to figure my arm length, key size, and elementary trig - my brain refused to help. Suddenly I heard "Captain, Captain" and felt eyes on the back of my neck. I turned around. One of the people in military uniform was interested in my attempt at my attempt at estimating the distance. We started talking, and soon the other civilians were also talking about many things. I moved back to the back row. We talked in a happy manner for maybe 10 minutes when a radio (limited audio bandwidth sort of thing) burst forth loudly. Apparently there was a computer problem somewhere and things were on hold for a while.
Soon I was trying to sneak a peek at my watch - hoping that my escort had forgotten about time. More talk. It seems that the guy in the military uniform who was talking (the others were dead silent) was our host - a Public Relations (PR) type of person - who definitely was not a technical person (or covered it up well). A quick phone call and cookies and coke arrived. The people in civilian clothes said they were accountants, doing an "audit" on NAMFI. (I presume looking to see that money was being spent in an effective manner.) One worked for the Canadian government and one for the U.S. government. It developed that the U.S. guy was based out of San Francisco, which explained why he knew about that area in detail, and was so curious about the exact location of SF-88 (just north of San Francisco). We even talked software and year 2000 situations.
At about the end of my hour, the radio burst forth again. Apparently all was going well and launch might be in 10 minutes. My escort did not look worried and I babbled on - hoping that he would be distracted. Five minutes to go - there were side doors to the left and right. I signed to my escort that I wanted to go out to the left side. He looked at the PR officer who seemed to approve - and I was out in the sunshine. The others arrived quickly.
I really wanted to time the various stages, and time the length of time the booster was in the air. (As well as see everything else.) I got to tapping my foot on a one second interval as indicated by my watch - hoping that I could sustain the rhythm when things got exciting. The other civilians and some military people got their cameras ready -
10 - 9 - 8 - ... - 1 - FIRE
FIRE - a one second pause and the booster fired. The missile rose quickly and by the time it reached our altitude (about 2 seconds by my tapping foot) - WHAM - the SOUND hit us. Not the deep throated ground shaking sub-bass tearing roar of the Saturn V rocket, nor the bass tearing roar of the space shuttle, but a higher pitched tearing roar of less intensity - but still very distracting. It took me by surprise and stopped effective thinking and counting for maybe a second.
The booster flame was a lovely pink - maybe twice as long as the missile/booster combination - and there is no smoke. (Some of the people who "enhance" Nike images think too much of the space shuttle booster and add smoke. The Nike booster uses smokeless material.)
NAMFI Launch from Rolf Dieter Görigk 32 K bytes, same as on home page
At about 4 seconds, booster separation, and of course I find myself following the booster which is now trailing a lot of white "smoke" (scorched paint?), and not following the missile which seems to be delayed in firing its sustainer motor - ah - there it is - must be the delayed option to permit smaller dead zone and lower altitude operation.
After about 40 seconds, the booster seems to be at its peak and on the way down. Soon there is a puff of white way down range (over the sea) and the booster is falling to land in the sea not far (2000 meters?) away.
About 10 minutes later there is another count down.
With about 5 minutes to launch, an airliner comes (from the airport to the south?) over the west part of our ridge, over the radars, heading north towards Greece (right down range). There must have been some interesting words on the radio as the airliner suddenly does a sharp turn and goes back south towards the airport.
Apparently we go back to 10 minutes and count down again. Up the missile goes - WHAM - the sound hits us. Booster separation - and about 1 second later - the missile explodes right over our heads while the booster continues on as before. DAMN!
I notice that there is white smoke on the outside of the smoky area, and not so much smoke in the middle, a bit like a smoke ring. I guessed that was a sphere of smoke with not much smoke in the middle. So the edges are thick with smoke and looking through the middle traverses less smoke. I did not see any fiery stuff. (Oh yes, there has been a breeze from the north to the south all day.)
The civilians ask what might have happened, and I volunteer that the main things that cause this are:
Just about then I remember that what goes up must come down. (This stuff is not orbital.) And inside we go. There are inquiries about the strength of the roof of our theater. We do not hear any impacts.
- Missile tracking radar lost the missile and the missile exploded itself (unlikely)
- Missile refused to steer, and the Nike computer noticed it and sent a burst signal itself.
- Range safety did not like something (a plane blundering into a dangerous area?, almost anything) and issued a burst command.
At no time did any of the military men (other than the PR man) say a word.
One more Nike to go -
This launch goes as expected (I still get surprised by the intensity of the sound) even though it does not have the chest shaking intensity of the space shuttle launches. And the booster passes so close to the edge of the cliff between the launcher area and the sea that no splash is seen. The civilians wonder if there is danger. The PR man smiles and says that no boosters have hit the launching area or our area.
I look at my escort and he looks at me - must be time to leave - we have seen more than expected. Back to the car. On the very short drive back to the gate, my escort suddenly talks - there is a fire on the hill to the south maybe 1500 meters away - really? How could that be - I thought the hills looked so dry and barren that there is not enough to sustain a fire. But indeed, there is smoke and little sparkles of red. I figure there must have been a problem at the rock quarry near there.
Unexpected Souvenirs :-))
At the gate, my escort departs with a wave, and the superior and I exchange friendly waves. I start down the hill, toward the south. Just where the road bends, and where the gate people cannot see - my car starts running over tinkling metal and there is rubber looking stuff on the road that I did not remember. HEY - This is where the stuff landed! I pull off the road to the left (away from the cliff) and start to gather stuff. I hear a car. Act innocent! The general's car with the red flags on the front goes past. Back to picking up. More traffic. All innocence! Seems that I have as much metal and rubbery stuff as I'm going to get with out pushing my luck too far. I guess that the breeze from the north has blown the fragments and the rocket mixture to this area.
Down the hill, down through the quarry, down past the little fires, down towards the airport - A fire truck comes up my way. I cannot imagine how the Nike could have caused the fire. I had samples of un-burnt sustainer motor propellant. Surely all of the metal pieces would have cooled to body temperature during the long fall. And the stuff I picked up was from an area about a kilometer to the north. (Still no answer that I am satisfied with.)
Return the clip-on pass. --- Later that evening, people at the hotel who have helped me ask what happened. Did the missile really pass by some people on the beach. Sounds as though the Greek news services can be even as creative as the American news services.
The next day, I get an English language paper published in Athens, and it seems to have a reasonable description of the events. I am about to credit them with good sense - but then realize that it is basically the press release from NAMFI. Well - OK the newspaper did add "punch" to the headline.
Here is a map 113 K bytes map of the Hania part of Crete, showing NAMFI Range in blue, The image of a church is a monastery, the omega above it indicates a cave. No beaches are marked on this map. There is a beach on the north side near Marathi.
I notice in the "US Army Air Defense Digest, 1972" that the T-1 engagement simulator could also be used to simulate a target well enough to shoot at it - and that many training firings were conducted using the T-1 simulator instead of a real aircraft. This was regarded as a real cost saving feature. It is my impression that the T-1 was used to provide the NAMFI targets. I know nothing about the T-1 system and I have no idea how well this target simulation works. (I would guess that if the Target Tracking Radar was badly bore-sighted, that the simulation would look OK anyway.
I did some more sightseeing in Crete and Athens, talked with a writer and an editor for the Greek magazine "Modern Air Force & Navy" who had been very helpful to me. They are very interested in the missile that burst overhead - they want to get the story straight. They have heard a number of versions. I try to be helpful.
If you have comments or suggestions, Send e-mail to Ed Thelen
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Updated December 8, 2016