Secrets of Cheyenne Mountain

9:11 AM, Aug 17, 2012   |    comments
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This week, on the 9NEWS morning show, we're giving you a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the underground military installation known as Cheyenne Mountain. After nearly two decades of trying, I finally got access to some of the mountain's most unusual and surprising secrets.

Day 1

Every time you pass by, you can't help but look, and wonder.
Deep inside this kissing cousin to Pikes Peak is one of the most-talked-about military installations in the world.

Since it was first built, Cheyenne Mountain has fired the imaginations of people the world over, and made them uneasy too.

"This facility was specifically designed to ensure we would have effective command and control of our nuclear arsenal in the event we were attacked by the Soviet Union," according to Colonel Joseph J. Turk Jr. 

Turk serves as both the bases's Installation Commander and the leader of Cheyenne's 721st Mission Support Group.

The creators who built Cheyenne were challenged to come up with a self-sufficient city, capable of not only withstanding a nuclear blast, but also of functioning for 30 days without support from the outside world. Using ingenuious engineering and mining techniques, and guided only by slide rules and blueprints, they carved it out and built it up from the inside out.

"Every minute I spend in this facility, I learn something new about its uniqueness," Colonel Turk explained. "It is truly a national treasure."

First dreamed up in the late 50's, the base was finished and opened in April 1966, but not before countless changes in response to the growing Soviet nuclear threat, and overcoming the difficulties of building something this massive, this complex, and this secret, 2,000 feet inside a mountain.

"There is a lot of mystique to Cheyenne Mountain and the complex. I think most people understand because of that mystique, it must be an important mission, and it is," according to Colonel Turk. "I mean we are a critical command and control node for our national defense and the defense of Canada."

A heavily-fortified guard stop is the view most visitors get when they drive the long road up to the entry, and no further. A stop at the visitor's center will get you a short chat with the center's Wayne Walter. 

"People who want to come up and see the tunnel, things like that ... no, sorry," Walter explains.

But tomorrow, as our series continues, we'll ride into the mouth of Cheyenne Mountain together, to explore what few people in the world have ever seen: the city, deep inside.

Day 2

On the surface of Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, you'll find the the headquarters building which includes the 721st Mission Support Group. A powerful September 11th sculpture, made from World Trade Center steel, is a constant reminder of how the mission here has evolved.

And just a few yards away, a well-armed, no-nonsense airman patrols the underground entry. I was reminded several times during my visit, that they take their security very seriously here, including the use of lethal force. The usual way in to the mountain is by Air Force Bus.

It's absolutely surreal going inside. And as you go deeper, you can't help but think back to what it took to design this indestructable base capable of surviving the unthinkable half a century ago.

Seven hundred thousands of tons of granite were blasted and excavated during construction to make way for two miles of tunnels, seven caverns, and a self-supporting city.

If you look up at the ceiling, you'll find dozens of rockbolts, along with a concrete spray that provides the structural support. Notes, scrawled on rock walls, are more evidence of those who made Cheyenne.

And just across from the traffic light (the entry tunnel can get awfully busy) you'll find the iconic three and a half foot thick blast doors, designed to swing shut at a moment's notice, sealing the base off, from the outside world.

"The only time we've actually closed the blast doors was on September 11th," explained based commander Colonel Joseph J. Turk Jr. "To me that is very unique, because we never closed it because of nuclear war. We closed it because of a terrorist attack, and that still shows the relevance of the facility today."

Once past the blast doors, you'll see a massive white steel wall emblazoned with base insignias that signals the access to the installation's most innermost areas. Inside, you travel through acres of hallways and doorways. It reminded me of being inside an aircraft carrier, something I was able to experience firsthand when I visited my Navy pilot son aboard the USS Reagan for another series I'd done a few years ago.

For years, Cheyenne was home to NORAD, and military personnel from every branch tracked threats of every kind. As the cold war unwound, and the threat from nuclear attack eased off, it was decided to move NORAD out.

"Day to day, NORAD and US Northern Command Staff operate at Peterson Air Force Base," according to Colonel Turk. "But all systems and data still reside in the complex, and we're still processing critical data, strategic air and missile warning data, and we're sending all of that data down to Peterson."

Were Peterson to come under attack, the Cheyenne Command Center can be turned back on, instantly.

Lots of sensitive areas were off limits during my visit, including base control rooms. Three escorts were with me the entire time to make sure I didn't stray. But I was permitted to see the Cheyenne Chapel, where services are held every Thursday.

I toured the base's fitness center (filled with state-of-the-art workout machines), and Cheyenne's very own restaurant, The Granite Inn. It's got just about everything you'd want, including meals at midnight.

The base also has its own underground store. It's just like any well-stocked grocery, except the customers often include Air Force personnel strapped with automatic weapons. The clerks who work the grocery say it's cool to work deep inside a mountain, but they often wonder what the weather is like outside. Or, as one of them joked, "quite frankly the world could go down and I'd be everything still standing out there?"

Tomorrow: a walk down Cheyenne's main street.

Day 3

Cheyenne Mountain is a busy place. Transport buses constantly come and go. Forklifts make their way through mazes of tunnels and entryways. 

Not only is it busy, it's physically challenging. You get a workout from all the stairclimbing and hatch opening. While much of it feels like being inside a submarine or aircraft carrier, there are places where this underground city really looks like a city.

I had the chance to walk down Cheyenne's "main street" complete with multi-story buildings, each with their own address emblazoned in stencil outside. The lights were on upstairs in most of the buildings during my visit, but I never found out who was up there, nor what they were doing. That's just part of the Cheyenne mystique.

Every now and then you catch a glimpse of somebody working on the main floor. Almost ho-hum, until you remember the fact that you're two thousand feet inside a mountain.

This city is unlike any in the world for several reasons. A big one: it can bounce. The whole place is on giant shock absorbers. They keep one building as a demonstrator. You can look up and see a flexible connector moving back and forth when the building is moved. It all goes back to Cheyenne's original nuclear-proof design. Jason Cook, Cheyenne's Deputy Base Civil Engineer, explained how it works.

"When you have the blast come through, a lot of systems keep us protected from the actual blast, but obviously things are going to bounce, and buildings don't like to be bounced, so it gives them the ability to bounce in any direction, without impacting the rock," Cook said.

There are 1,300 hundred shock absorbers, weighing half a ton of heavy metal apiece. In fact this bounceable city is mostly made of metal, and for very good reason. The metal neutralizes the electromagnetic pulse of any bomb sparing the electronics that play such a key role throughtout the complex.

Also playing a key role: the city's underground fire department.
They've got everything a fire department on the surface might have including trucks at the ready, a room packed with firefighting gear, complete with helmets and respirators, and a place for fire commanders to work and plan.

And were a fire ever to break out, there's always the big orange emergency hatch to offer a quick exit to the surface and safety.

Tomorrow: the mother of all crawlspaces.

Day 4

It's really pretty simple. Just take the 9:15 bus, walk through the first set of blast doors. Go past General Jacoby's parking spot.
Make a left at the store. Or is it a right? On through the dining hall, the gym, a corridor or two...or three...or four. I lost track.
And then, you're in Cheyenne's mother of all crawl spaces.

Four and a half "keep your head down" acres worth. Those springs I showed you topside are all scrunched down here in the dark, compressed by the weight of all those buildings and people above.

Giant red dampers keep it all stable were the bounceable buildings ever to move from a nuclear shockwave. 

At the far end of the crawlspace you'll find the place Cheyenne gets its water; a natural spring discovered by the builders, who then incorporated it into the city's self-sufficient design.

"We get 30 thousand to 120 thousand gallons of water a day from this, depending on the time of year, how much rainfall we get," explained Brian Gohl, one of the top mechanical engineers who works at the base. "It takes two weeks to get from the top of the mountain down to here. This is our domestic water supply, we pump it to a reservoir."

There are five reservoirs inside the mountain. The one I was allowed to see holds one and a half million gallons, and a boat.
A what?? A boat. The mountain's Navy personnel asked for it so they could maintain the time-honored Naval tradition of carrying out re-enlistment ceremonies on water.

But back to that natural spring for a minute. They recently found evidence that somebody, they don't know who, was actually gold panning in it. What they didn't know, was that all the tempting sparkly stuff at the bottom of the spring was fool's gold, nothing more.

Of all the secrets I learned about Cheyenne Mountain, this one was certainly the strangest.

Tomorrow: in search of the Stargate.

Day 5

It's a question they've gotten time and time again here at Cheyenne. Where do you keep that Stargate?

"If you submit a request and get the proper clearances, I can gladly show you where our Stargate is," base commander Colonel Turk told me with a somewhat straight face.

Cheyenne's been rich fodder for movies and tv shows throughout its history. Remember War Games? And next year, it's the backdrop for the end-of-world thriller The Colony.

But who needs Hollywood? The real Cheyenne Mountain is interesting enough, and though hardly glamorous by Hollywood standards, the unsung heroes who keep this underground city running are Cheyenne's civil engineers.

"The fact of the matter is, that complex is nothing without the endurability, survivability, and reliability that the complex provides and that is due to the labor of my civil engineers," Colonel Turk explained.

So important is their role, they've been given squadron status, and they are in constant motion in Cheyenne. A good pair of walking shoes, walkie-talkies and a mental map of all the hatches and corridors are musts.

They're the ones who keep Cheyenne's water running, filtered and clean. They maintain a super-sized power plant, inspired by what's used on battleships, to generate enough electricity to light up a thousand households.

"They provide perfect power, meaning we have several redundant systems that require power 99.9999 percent of the time to all of our critical mission systems," explained Colonel Turk. "You don't see that in any other industry standard, that level of perfection."

They operate one of the most complex ventilation systems in the world, using giant cooling towers deep within one of Cheyenne's many caverns to keep the airflow going.

"All the heat that's inside the complex is collected and brought back to what we call the industrial area," explained deputy base civil engineer Jason Cook. "We use water to collect that heat, put it into an airstream, and then flush that air out of the complex."

Vents that carry the air to the outside are camoflauged. You really have to know what you're looking for to even spot them on the outside of Cheyenne Mountain. 

But on the day of my visit, it was easy to spot something else.
The Cheyenne version of a company picnic. Civil engineers and their families mixed easily with the station's uniformed men and women, and their families too.

The picnic was a time for everyone to leave their ties to their unique, secret, underground world behind; for a while anyway. But the importance of that world, and the job that these people do, military and civilian alike, is really no secret at all.

Callie Maher contributed to this article.

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