Sayres worked with nuclear missiles, launching rockets in the Air Force
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series for 2020, which features veterans in our area sharing first-hand accounts of their military service. The series will be published through Veterans Day.
ELKINS — Former local resident Jimmy Sayres worked with nuclear missiles and helped launch rockets into space during his nearly 25 years in the United States Air Force. The 1989 Elkins High School graduate left for basic training just three weeks after graduating.
Sayres said he enrolled in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he began his military career.
“I started there with my basic training at the academy that summer and was cadet in the academy until I graduated in the summer of 1993,” he said. “When I graduated I was commissioned to 2nd Lt. in the Air Force.”
Sayres said basic training was as he expected it to be.
“You show up on the first day on a bus and they teall you everywhere you need to go and everything you need to do. They make everyone look as much the same as possible, shaving everybody’s heads and everybody is wearing he same uniforms. Learning how to march, eat and talk to your superiors,” he said.
Sayres said most of his time during basic training was spent under close scrutiny. He said from 5:30 a.m. to around 9 p.m. every day the newly enlisted airmen would do be training in physical fitness, marching practices, classes and obstacle courses.
“They try to instill discipline and consistency. I think that is another big thing they were trying to achieve, you have people coming from all over the country, from all different walks of life and what they needed is to have young airmen that could be consistently relied up to follow orders and achieve the goals that were set before them,” he said.
He said there was free time in the evenings that gave him time to write letters home and attend chapel.
“They had chapel every evening. It was pretty much a full schedule of events from sun up to sun down,” he said
After completing basic training, Sayres began his studies at the Air Force Academy. He said the Academy strove to give all the students a well-rounded education, but there was a lot of focus on technical engineering and math fields, in addition to military classes.
“At that time, no matter if you were majoring in astronautical engineering or history, you still had a core curriculum that was many hours of different types of engineering. Everyone took at least one class of astro, areo, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, two semesters of physics, two semesters of chemistry, two semesters of math, two semesters of English and two semesters of foreign language.”
He said while at the Academy he had the opportunity to participate in mentoring sessions with upper-level Air Force leadership to learn more about the Air Force life after graduation.
“While they were still trying to educate and give an education to college students, they were also in a pipeline to become officers in the Air Force so they were trying to prepare them and at the same time educate them for what was going to be in their future,” he said.
Sayres graduated with a degree in business management and was given his first assignment serving as an executive officer in the Air Force Space Command in Grand Forks, North Dakota, which at that time was part of the nuclear missile program.
“It was basically an administration role. I basically helped facilitate the administration of a 150-person squadron of missileers, security forces, maintainers. My job was essentially to work in the front office with the squadron commander and his deputy and help run the administration office for the squadron,” Sayres said.
He said after three years at the base he was approached by the Air Force wanting him to broaden his experience, and he was asked to consider cross training out of the administration career field and moving into “space operations.”
“I ended up being selected to become a missileer myself,” he said. “I got reassigned to a different missile base and I had training in California to prepare me for that job.”
He said the training to become a missileer lasted about nine months and was a unique opportunity.
“You are learning something that nobody else in the nation does that job,” he said. “On the outside, there’s nobody that you have that works with nuclear missiles on a day-to-day basis besides the people that are doing that for the Air Force.”
He said during the training he had to learn everything possible about the Peacekeeper Missile System.
“This is one of the jobs you hear people talk about ‘going down in the silos,'” he said. “We would go out for missile alerts for 24-hour-periods at a time with another crew partner. We would go down in the missile capsule and we would be on alert for 24 hours until our relief crew would come out the next day.”
He said as an operator, he had to know about all the parts of the system
“We would need to know about mechanical problems that could go wrong, indications that we might get out of the system,” he said. “We had a couple consoles where we would monitor the health of the missile systems. Anytime something was not working correctly or there were security situations that maybe needed to be investigated at the missile sites. Where we sat was not where the missiles actually were, we were in a control center that monitored all those. We had the ability to send out security teams or maintenance teams as needed to make sure the missiles were being kept in operational condition in a secure manner.
“If there was a fire or if the HVAC systems were to fail we would need to know how to trouble shoot that in a rapid manner, or if we would every have indications that there was something happening to the missile system, we would have to have ways to ensure they were maintained and kept in a safe configuration until maintenance teams could get out and investigate the systems. There was a lot of training, both mechanical to understand the systems as well as the emergency preparedness side of how we would react whenever a situation might arise.”
He said after the training to become a missileer he was assigned to the the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he spent four years as part of the missile operations career field with the Peacekeeper Missile System.
He said even after being certified as a missileer, the training was continuous at the base, consistently happening every month. He said while on base he would participate in eight “alerts” a month, when he and his partner would stay for 24 hours at a missile site monitoring the systems.
He said driving out to an alert could take up to two hours and they would drive back the next day. He said along with the alerts, simulator training took place once a month and once a year there was an evaluation to ensure the airmen stayed proficient in their training.
“It could be stressful at times. Sometimes you were hoping for a nice quiet alert, but you never knew what to expect, but you had to be ready at anytime,” he said.
While at the base, Sayres eventually became the flight commander for a group of missileers and the support teams. He went on to become the senior instructor for the Peacekeeper Missile System for all the operators.
In the early 2000s, Sayres was reassigned to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to the space lift program, where he assisted launching rockets equipped with satellites into space.
“It was pretty consistent between the squadron I was in and at least one other sister squadron, we were probably launching a rocket a month,” he said. “It was a little slower in the early 2000s. Now with the changes in the launch program, they are launching multiple rockets a month.”
Sayres was part of the Titan Rocket Program and a participated in a historic launch in 2001.
“I was part of the team that launched the first Titan Rocket with a milstar communications satellite,” he said. “It was the first launch that happened after 9/11. That was an amazing time to be part of that team, to be able to do something like that for the country.”
He said in 2005 he was sent to several different headquarters for assignments. It was during this time he was sent back to Colorado Springs.
“After being gone from the academy for 12 years or so after I graduated, I got to back to to one of our headquarters in space command,” he said.
He was then assigned to Washington, D.C. for additional schooling and then worked at the Pentagon and then worked with the Department of Energy. He said in 2010 he was assigned back to Cape Canaveral to help run the teams that helped to facilitate the rocket launches. Sayres retired from the service in 2014.
He said he will always be grateful for the opportunities the Air Force created for him.
“It was something that I wanted to do since I was 12 years old,” he said. “I originally wanted to pilot jets, but didn’t become a pilot because they didn’t need as many of them.”
He said if his career would have gone down that path, he wouldn’t have the life he does now. He said he met his wife, Danika, while she was also serving as a missileer in North Dakota. Sayres currently lives in Cape Canaveral with his family and works for a national nonprofit ministry.
“We are a service family and we were very honored to do that for the country,” he said. “It was an opportunity for me to grow as a person and serve our country and give back. I served almost 25 years in a uniform at the academy and my active duty time.”