In a dimly lit passage, line with corrugated metal some 50 feet underground, we donned our dive gear: pulling on our dry suits, shrugging our arms through the harness on our backplate and wing, tugging our hoods down and over our heads, and pulling our gloves on. Fins in hand, we then walked over to a set of stairs - 48 in all - suspsended precariously 75 feet above the surface of the water. We were in a giant concrete tube about 60 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. Above us, access to the surface was sealed off by a set of 25 ton nuclear blast-resistant steel doors. Below us, 100 feet of inky black but crystal clear water. Carefully, we placed our feet on each step, gripping the handrails for dear life, and made our way down first the wooden steps, which gave way to metal steps, and finally a metal ramp, to a floating dock.
During the height of the Cold War, Russia and the US were in a nuclear arms race to see who could build the biggest and baddest nuclear arsenal in the world. Thankfully, neither country had cause to use them (although we did come close). To support this endeavor, the US Military built a series of missle silos across the county to house the Atlas F nuclear missile. Decommissioned in the mid-1960s, many of these silos are now owned by individuals. This particular silo, aptly named Valhalla by the owners and located in the middle of a wind farm about 20 minutes southwest of Abilene, TX, is one such decommissioned silo.
Over the years, most of the structure inside the silo has been stripped and removed. Today, little more than HVAC rubble and the remains of the interital guidance system, from which Polaris was viewed to aim the missile, are left. As ground water seeped through the 5-foot-thick concrete walls, the silo slowly filled up. Today, it’s about half filled with water - give or take a few feet. A number of years ago, the owner Mark - who is about as down to earth as one could image - decided to open the silo for diving. At that time, the silo was dark, with a floating wood platform, and poorly lit with no built-in sanitation system. However, in recent years a number of upgrades have been made and the silo is actually quite comfortable now. The dry staging area, located in the former command portion of the complex, is painted a bright white making it feel ever so slightly less dungeon-like, with murphy beds lining the circumference that may be reserved for an additional fee, a shower, and two toilets. The silo itself has had a new floating dock installed - a significant upgrade from they wooden floating dock that used to be in place - and new flood lights have been installed in the last few years providing better lighting. On the surface, a small hut with a toilet, shower, electricity, and sink has been built overlooking the blast doors.
Heading into the silo, you enter through a heavy metal door (which still swings surprisingly well) with steps descending down into the ground. Footsteps echo loudly in the concrete structure with each step - there’s no chance of sneaking up on someone here. At the base of the stairs, the hallway makes a sharp right, followed by a sharp left before making a final sharp right into an airlock. Why all the sharp turns? A blast loses 50% of it’s energy when it has to turn so that by the time it makes it to the airlock, it’s at only 12.5% of its original strength.
Another set of stairs lies beyond the airlock leading you to the first and second levels of the command portion of the silo. The first level has been renovated into an apartment for the owner and the second level is the dry staging area for divers.
But, back to the dive. “What’s there to see? Isn’t it just a big concrete tube?” is a common question we get asked when we tell people about this dive. I’d love to say that there is a lot of cool stuff to look at, but really, there isn’t. They are right when they say it’s just a giant concrete tube. Sure, at the bottom there is some cool wreckage to see, parts of the old HVAC systems, and for two engineers that work in the chemical industry, there was some interesting historical industry stuff. The interial guidance shack, sitting about a third of the way between the bottom and top of the silo, also provides some interest. Here, the missile would be aimed by sighting in Polaris (aka the North Star) and using an inertial guidance system installed on the missile. Other than that, it really is just a giant concrete tube. Our dive profile typically consistes of descending down the center line, examining the HVAC components until we reached our minimum decompression limits (aka no-decompression limits), and then we would start to spiral our way up the exterior of the silo. Uniquely, this is one of the few places in the US where a tornado could be passing over outside and you could still dive! And bonus, it technically counts as an elevation night wreck dive! Talk about three PADI specialties in one dive! More than anything, this is really and truly a bucket list type of dive.
We did three dives in the silo. I wanted to do more, but the hike up from the water in full gear, followed by schlepping tanks up to the surface for fills (another 52 steps), and then back down, was quite a bit of work. Not to mention, we also had the girls with us, so there was little relaxing between dives. In all reality though, the scenery doesn’t change much from dive to dive. I only wanted to do more in hopes of hitting my 200th dive that trip. Instead, I hit that milestone while doing GUE fundamentals a month later.
At the end of the first dive day, the owner invited us in to his apartment in the command portion of the silo (a level up from the dry staging area) where he had a slide show to share with us. He discussed the history of the Atlas F missile program, how the silos were built and designed to be used, and lots of pictures of the Valhalla silo as they were working on renovating it. Seeing the dark, drab, leaky state it used to be in when Mark bought it gave us a real appreciation for all the work they have put into it over the years and how nice it is today!
Today, the Valhalla MIssile Silo is owned and operated by Family Scuba Center out of Midland, TX. He leases out the silo to interested dive shops. I wish I could give you a price, but we went with a dive shop in Michigan and am not sure how much it costs to lease out the entire silo for a weekend. Facilities are pretty spartan, but there is electricity and running water on the surface. Camping is generally the preferred accomodations, but there are full sized murphy beds in the silo you can rent for an additional fee, or you can get a hotel in the town of Abilene about 25 minutes away. If you decide to camp, make sure you bring a shade canopy too - the Texas sun can be intense during certain parts of the year! You’ll need to either bring a compressor or enough tanks to do all the diving you would like to do as there is no way to refill tanks at the silo. There is pretty good cell service out there too, so while it may seem like you’re in the boondocks, you’ll still have access to Instagram to post some cool pictures :)
And if you have dove it, or dive it in the future, let us know what you thought about it!