Brief History of Hart Island Nike Missile Site
-- The Cold War in LI Sound: Part II --
By Donald E. Bender
Special to the New York Correction History Society

This ventilator provided fresh air to the underground missile magazine located beneath it. Each of the missile magazines on Hart Island held up to ten fully-assembled Nike Ajax missiles. The missile elevator can be seen to the right of the ventilator hood.

These components were subsequently trucked to the Missile Assembly and Test Building where the missiles were assembled. After their internal guidance and control systems had been tested, the missiles were moved over a circuitous concrete path leading into the fueling and warheading area. Due to the potentially hazardous nature of the operations performed here, this facility was enclosed behind tall, sloping earthen berms designed to deflect the force of an accidental explosion.

About text, photos

All of the color photographs on this page were taken during a brief official visit to Hart Island in April 2000.

Copyright 2000 by Donald E. Bender. Text & images. All Rights Reserved.

Within the fueling area, the missiles received their liquid fuel and oxidizer - a potentially hazardous combination of jet petroleum, inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA) and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH). Three high-explosive warheads were installed inside of each missile and were connected to their complex safety and arming mechanisms. Finally, the missiles were joined to their booster rockets. Completed missiles were subsequently transported to the nearby underground missile storage magazines.

The Army's Hart Island base contained only two missile magazines making it one of the smaller Nike installations within the Army's New York Defense Area. Located close to the northern tip of the island, each magazine was capable of storing as many as ten fully-assembled Nike Ajax missiles. Within the underground magazine rooms, the missiles were stored horizontally atop storage racks. This technique contrasts with the popular notion of a missile "silo" in which missiles are stored inside of a deep vertical well in a ready-to-fire condition.

Instead, each underground Nike missile magazine contained a large elevator upon which a missile could be placed and subsequently lifted to the surface of the site. When a missile had been moved to the surface of the magazine, Launcher Area personnel pushed it sideways across two waist-high tracks to one of three satellite launch positions. Alternately, a missile could be left atop on a fourth launcher bolted to the missile elevator.

Once attached to its launcher, a missile would be raised to a near-vertical position prior to firing. This orientation ensured that the missile's booster rocket would not fall directly back onto the site from which it had just been fired. Instead, it would land within a predetermined impact area. Booster rockets from missiles fired from the Hart Island site would have impacted near the southern part of the island, at a safe distance from the missile facility and populated areas.

The crest of the Army battalion which operated the missile site was painted on the ventilator hood. Some 40 years later, it can still be discerned although time and corrosion have rendered it nearly illegible.

Each missile magazine on Hart Island supported four missile launchers enabling the site to erect a maximum of eight Nike Ajax missiles to their near-vertical firing positions. The remaining missiles stored within the underground magazines were available as "reloads" and could be brought to the surface when required.

In spite of this capability, the limitations of the Nike system's ground-based guidance and control equipment meant that only a single Nike Ajax missile could be fired from the site and guided to intercept an attacking aircraft at any given moment. It was not possible to fire a salvo of missiles to destroy a formation of several incoming aircraft. If a missile failed to destroy its target, another missile could be launched. However, this could be accomplished only after the first missile had been launched, guided to toward its target and expended.

Nike Ajax missiles fired from Hart Island would have been guided by the ground-based guidance and control equipment located at the Control Area on nearby Davids Island. This equipment consisted of radars designed to detect and track hostile aircraft and to track the missile during its flight, guiding it to its target.

The concrete upper surface of the missile magazine supported launchers for the Nike Ajax missiles. The rusted missile elevator can be seen near the center of the concrete pad. Hart Island had two underground missile storage magazines. Each was capable of holding ten fully assembled Nike Ajax missiles. The Manhattan skyline is faintly visible in the background of the photo.
A missile guidance computer, also located in the Control Area, continuously compared the relative locations of both the hostile aircraft and the airborne Nike missile, guiding the missile to intercept its target. At the moment of closest approach, a computer-generated burst command exploded the missile's warheads. An engagement of hostile aircraft (including the firing of missiles from Hart Island) would have been directed by the Battery Control Officer located on Davids Island.

The Nike Ajax missiles deployed on Hart Island were slender, dart-like missiles having a maximum diameter of only one foot and an overall length of 35 feet, including the disposable booster rocket. Fixed aerodynamic fins and movable control surfaces imparted stability to the missile and enabled it to be steered to its target. Including its rocket booster, the missile weighed approximately 2,500 pounds. Nike Ajax missiles could reach maximum speeds of over 1,600 mph and were capable of engaging aircraft flying as high as 60,000 to 70,000 feet.

One of the most hotly debated aspects of the Nike Ajax missile was its relatively short range - less than 30 miles. Detractors believed this would have allowed hostile aircraft to penetrate too close to a defended area to provide adequate protection.

Electrical cables connected the diverse elements of the Nike missile system. The conduits shown here contained cables which led into an underground personnel room located adjacent to one of the missile storage magazines.

Supporters noted that the new missiles were superior to the conventional anti-aircraft guns they replaced and were the only defensive missile system actually deployed to defend American cities at that time.

Under the best circumstances, Nike Ajax missiles fired from Hart Island could have reached New York-bound Soviet bombers as they flew over towns and cities no farther distant than Amityville, Northport, Croton-on-Hudson, Spring Valley or Darien. They truly provided a final line of defense against a nuclear air attack.

New York City was never attacked by Soviet bombers, however, and no missiles were ever fired from the Hart Island Nike missile site, not even during the many practice exercises held there. Instead, the Army's missile personnel participated in Annual Service Practices held at missile ranges located in the New Mexico desert. During these practice exercises, personnel from site NY-15 fired live missiles at remotely-controlled flying targets designed to simulate the characteristics of an attacking aircraft.

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