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A History of TTR

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This undated, unclassified document came from Sandia National Labs. It appears to be circa 1978. History of the Tonopah Test Range

One of the first requirements of the Los Alamos Z Division and its successor, Sandia Laboratory, was a range where ballistic tests could be made of bomb shapes and where the operation of fuzing and firing systems could be monitored. The first range, at which drops were conducted in late 1945, was located near the town of Los Lunas, New Mexico, 25 miles southwest of Sandia Base and at a ground altitude of 5000 feet. It soon became evident that a range located nearer sea level altitude was needed, and a test base was established in the summer of 1946 on the shores of Salton Sea, California. This area, then known as Sandy Beach, had been utilized by the Manhattan Project for ballistic and F&F testing of the first atomic weapons. A water impact area and later a land impact area were provided at this location.

The Salton Sea Test Base provided satisfactory range facilities for several years. However, by the mid-1950’s, the atmosphere in this locality became permeated with haze which limited visibility and hampered photography. In addition, the population of the neighboring Imperial Valley began to increase. The commercial airways over the area and the new public highways complicated bombing approaches, and the number of programs requiring ballistic and operational testing continued to multiply.

It became obvious that another location was needed, and a search was made for a site near Salton Sea. The Yuma sand dunes area to the southeast, the Anza-Borrego Desert to the west, and the Carrizo Desert to the southwest were examined. All these were too small in size, crisscrossed by commercial air lanes, and held by private owners; thus, they were eliminated as possibilities.

Meanwhile, it had become essential that tests be made of contact fuzes. These tests required a large level area, which was not available at the Salton Sea land target. A temporary test site was secured in late 1954 on the bed of Yucca Lake in Nevada, about 20 miles north of Camp Mercury in the AEC’s Nevada Test Site (NTS).

The Yucca Range was located in a natural bowl, surrounded by mountains. It was satisfactory for bombing from high altitudes, but the increasing emphasis on low-altitude approach and delivery required flat terrain and a long approach corridor. Additionally, range operations had to be coordinated with the increasing activity at the Nevada Test Site and , by the end of 1956, it became apparent that it would not be practical to maintain future operations at the Yucca Range. Therefore, the search continued for another location. Good weather and visibility were basic requirements, as well as enough area for the increasing use of rockets and for low-altitude, high-speed aircraft operations.

Sandia Corporation cooperated with the Air Force and the Navy to form a joint Ballistic Range Committee. This Committee made an exhaustive survey of potential range sites within the continental United States. Four area in New Mexico were examined: The Clovis Bombing Range, the Bell Ranch north of Tucumcari, the North Plains area near Grants, and the St. Augustine Plains sourthwest of Magdalena. All these had drawbacks and the Committee eventually selected a large and relatively unoccupied tract of land northwest of Winslow, Arizona, on the Navajo Indian Reservation. A lease was drawn up and presented to the tribe for approval. Opposition developed, principally on the part of some families who would have been moved from their homes. Negotiations dragged on, with the Navy losing interest and the Air Force withdrawing in 1957, A request was then made to secure the land for Sandia use only, but the proposal was formally rejected by the Navajos in the fall of 1958. The search for a range site was resumed.

Meanwhile, laydown weapons for use against enemy airfields were being developed, and it was necessary to test these weapons on airports runways. A search was made for a runway or apron that could be used as a target.

An immediately available location was the old Melfa Airfield, a Naval Air Ordnance Test Station located near Chincoteague, Virginia, about 100 miles southeast of Washington, DC; drops were made between April 1957 and October 1958. These tests involved serious compromises. The concrete runway was less than desired thickness; the only possible flight path was from north to south; the runway was narrow, preventing drops from being made during strong crosswinds; camera coverage was restricted, and security was a major problem, as the field could be used for emergency landings of civilian aircraft.

As another interim measure, laydown tests were conducted at the Dalhart (Texas) Air Force Base. This was 240 air miles east of Albuquerque, and had a concrete runway that could be used as a target although it was less than the desired thickness. A lease was signed for the period from August 11, 1958, through June 30, 1959, and was subsequently extended through June 30, 1960.

The search for a permanent range had continued. An area near Lordsburg, New Mexico, was examined and rejected due to radio interference from the White Sands Missile Range. Another location south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, proved unsatisfactory from the standpoint of terrain. The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, the Estancia Valley in New Mexico, and the Amargosa Desert, southeast of the Nevada Test Site, were all turned down due to private land ownership, density of population, and terrain problems.

Another location was a site in the northwest corner of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range, the extensive Air Force property which included the Nevada Test Site as part of its southern sector. The site had been surveyed by the Naval Air Special Weapons Facility at Kirkland Air Force Base and recommended in a report dated February 27, 1956, which noted that any of a string of dry lake beds in the vicinity would be satisfactory for use in high-level bombing operations. This area eventually became the Tonopah Test Range.

As negotiations for the Navajo Range were still in progress, only right of entry and temporary use of the land were secured from the Air Force. The area boundaries started from a point on the northern edge of the Las Vegas Range (at approximately 37 57’N to 116 26’W), and ran 26 miles west, 24 miles south, 26 miles east, and 24 miles north to the point of beginning. The area encompassed 369,280 acres, about seven times the size of the Salton Sea Test Base. The Department of the Air Force issued a permit for Sandia’s use of the property from November 9, 1956, to November 8, 1961. Initial construction started in the fall of 1956, funded by an authorization covering range costs in mid-1957.

The first test on the Tonopah Range was held February 4, 1957, with a Mk 5 test vehicle dropped during the day and a Mk 15 shape, that night. This initial test series included drops by both fighter and bomber aircraft operation out of Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. Extensive and exhaustive search had meanwhile been unsuccessful in turning up any better range areas, and the conclusion was reached that the Tonopah Range was the most proximal that could be found for Sandia’s work. Operating experience proved that the range was more than adequate for both high- and low-level flights, that air or ground traffic caused few interruptions, and that the weather was reasonably good throughout the year.

With the rejection of the Navajo site in the fall of 1958, it was decided to make the Tonopah Test Range into a permanent operational facility. An expansion and improvement program was drawn up and received AEC approval in early 1959, and the Air Force on April 9, 1959, extended the permit covering Sandia use of the area to March 31, 1969. This was further extended to March 31, 1979, on April 25, 1969.

The years 1960 to 1965, required a change in mission for the Tonopah Test Range. Originally conceived as a ballistic range for testing airborne weapons, it has become by virtue of Sandia Corporation’s test requirements a highly instrumented outdoor test laboratory. The first indication that the role of Tonopah Test Range was changing occurred in 1960 when a requirement was developed to provide rocket launch capability for overtesting parachute systems and shock resistant components. A later requirement resulted in the emplacement of a 155mm and 203mm (8-inch) gun area which is used extensively for AFAP testing.

The Tonopah Test Range became a primary test site for explosive studies, especially for the “Plowshare” program. While an explosive test area had been available in the Albuquerque area for a period of years, larger high-explosive charges and more extensive instrumentation required other areas for this type of testing. As a result, explosive studies made during recent years at Tonopah have included blast effects below ground, explosive case ruptures, shock-wave determination, cratering, and overpressure measurements.

To accommodate the continued increase in sophistication of test requirements, many changes have been made in the instrumentation facilities since the establishment of the Range. The Askania theodolites have been replaced by a network of nine Contraves cinetheodolites, with four of these in a mobile configuration for increased flexibility of coverage. Three precision instrumentation radars have been added to the Range data network, and MPS-25 in 1962, an MPS-36 in 1971, and a modified Nike-Hercules tracking system in 1976, and provide the raw data for a extensive test vehicle control and instrumentation system. A computing complex has been established to complement the radar network by providing parallax corrected test vehicle acquisition vectors to all instrumentation stations as well as controlling camera focus and identifying test unit location on plotting boards during a operation. This complex includes two DDP-124 computer, operating in real-time, one for target vector generation and plotting control and the other providing analysis of telemetry data. Following an operation, this system operates in a batch mode for radar data tape reformatting and detailed test data analysis.

The ground-based telemetry support systems have been expanded to accept both “S” (2200-2300 MHz) and “L” (1430-1540 MHz) band RF links in addition to retaining several special “P” band (220-26- MHz) frequency allocations. Autotracking and radar-directed telemetry antennas have been installed for all three RF bands and are supplemented with the use of fixed array through spatial diversity combining systems. A full complement of IRIG compatible demodulation systems has been acquired to provide quick-look analysis from telemetry links with PCM, PAM, or FM/FM base bands.

An extensive communications network has been established at TTR to supply timing and control signals to the widely placed instrumentation stations as well as provide the necessary voice and data link to coordinate and assure safe test operations. This system consists of twenty-five (25) RF links, fifteen (15) microwave links and ten (10) hard-line voice links. Timing and control signals are supplied via the RF links and through the use of over 5000 pair-miles of buried cable.

The rocket launcher complex has grown from an original one assembly building and one launcher to a complex including two instrumentation bunkers, a high-explosive assembly building, a telemetry and checkout station, a rocket assembly building, and five remote-positioned rocket launchers. The launchers are capable of handling all rockets ranging from the Loki-Dart combination to the Honest John rocket. Launcher settings are determined by a computer program which corrects for winds, earth’s rotation and rocket ballistics.

An instrumented gun bunker complete with timing, firing, recording and telemetry station was completed in 1971. At the same time two permanent gun mounts were installed to accommodate the 155mm and 8-inch guns. These mounts allow remote positioning of the fixed azimuth guns to a 90 degree elevation. In 1972 a gun support facility for temperature conditioning of both projectiles and powder, shell assembly, and powder handling was completed.

A rocket motor test facility was built in 1973 for testing motors up to 400,000-lb thrust.

An impact test facility employing a rocket sled track was built in 1975 to support a test program to evaluate power reactor vulnerability to tornado-driven debris. This facility is being enlarged to assess the vulnerability to turbine debris in the event of turbine breakup.

Many test programs have had the requirement for very high frequency recording equipment, both optical and electronic, and improvements in the range facilities reflect this need.

Efforts are continuing to update the facilities at the Tonopah Test Range both to satisfy the requirements for improving data and in order to provide better operating and maintenance facilities for the instrumentation and personnel. Buildings have been added including photo-optics laboratory with clean room and modern film processing facilities, warehousing, etc. A new master range timing system has been installed. The road complex has been expanded and improved in many areas by hard surfacing.

Lights were added to the runway in 1969 and in 1970 the runway was extended to 6600 feet, plus a 1500-foot overrun. In 1971 a Vorloc localizer and nondirectional radio beacon were added for instrument approach. The runway was completely repaved in 1976 with a strengthened all-weather surface.

In 1969 most of the Sandia employees at TTR moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and began daily commuting to the Range by F-27 aircraft.

A power distribution system was installed at the Range in 1971 providing commercial electrical power to all major facilities. Remote stations and mobile instrumentation continued to utilize diesel generators.

Current efforts towards updating the Range include improving the accuracy of the radars through multiple data compilation and reduction, improving meteorological data-gathering systems, and investigation doppler measurement systems for direct velocity information.

Present Operational Status

Actual practice over the years and observation of other test facilities strongly indicate that the most effective results are obtained from range management by a single organization responsible for both technical and administrative control. All the functions of test operations, financial cognizance, personnel staffing, logistics instrumentation, communications, etc., are integrated and facilitated. Response to R&D program requirements are generally rapid and flexible with minimum discussion of relative priorities. From a project point of view, the options available for rescheduling because of weather or equipment delays are invaluable in maintaining required development program timescales.

Inherent advantages of this approach are more efficient use of manpower, lower over-all costs with direct cost control, and few misunderstandings of objectives. The individual range staffer is afforded great latitude of initiative and action with full recognition of his contribution to the technical effort.

Historically, the test workload at TTR has involved 200-4– operations per year. During FY-76, there were 201 tests of which 140 were R&D or P&S. In FY-76-T, 113 test operations were conducted. Experience has shown that predictions of future workload are generally underestimated. Invariably, previously unscheduled tests have been laid on.

It has also been quite evident in recent years that data precision requirements have increased substantially. This is probably due to more stringent military characteristics and certainly reflects the impact of greatly increased cost of sophisticated weapons test assemblies. Over a wide spectrum of test activities, TTR has consistently acquired 95-97% valid data including radar, telemetry and photo-optical information.

It is interesting to note that on occasion various DoD agencies approach TTR to perform certain tests because of a established reputation for technical capability, data reliability, rapid response and reasonable reimbursable costs not completely attainable at DoD ranges. Several of the complex “conventional” bomb-type weapons used during the closing months of the Southeast Asia conflict utilized TTR for the testing phase of development.

In order to maintain viability and to address the problem of aging instrumentation, a $7.5M proposal has been approved by
ERDA Headquarters for acquisition of more modern range facilities during the FY 78-79 time period. This program includes a new control and central data handling complex, replacement of 20-year-old cinetheodolites with new digital output models and addition of needed support facilities.


Periodically, the question arised regarding alternatives to performing the variety of development tests usually conducted at TTR and acquiring reliable data for engineering or scientific evaluation. A number of studies have been made with documentation dating back to 1968.

One alternative would be to locate a new site for a ERDA range and move existing equipment for our present TTR facility. Based on the history as presented here with regard to establishing our present range, it is estimated that a least a four-year period would be required to complete this move.

In considering a movement and re-establishment, it is evident that there are no properly-sized areas in the united States which provide an environment comparable to TTR. The salient factors are those of prevailing good weather and atmospheric clarity, terrain features conducive to ordnance testing, clear air traffic space, absence of man-made structures and low surrounding population density. Further, TTR is geographically located within reasonable flight distances from Nellis, Edward’s and China Lake from which bomb drops can be launched.

White Sands is the only range having the capability for carrying out all the types of tests now conducted at TTR. At this range, we would be required to work through a contractor located at the range, not directly with the facility. We would be required to schedule tests a considerable time in advance. Aborts of the aircraft of test units would cause considerable problems with rescheduling. At TTR we can schedule tests as late as the day before and aborts can be handled the next day or whenever the aircraft or units are ready. These observations are based on actual experiences and participation in test programs all over the world and not on a narrow subjective view.


The Tonopah Test Range is uniquely equipped and dedicated to support DMA weapon systems development. As an entity it is irreplaceable.

While it can be argued that ERDA testing can be accomplished at DoD ranges, it is expected both costs and timescales would be significantly increased. The effort would suffer from discontinuities in dealings with a variety of DoD agencies and their contractors.

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