on where you are, you're likely to hear dive sites described as
"cool," "hot," "radical," "stellar"
or "awesome." Deep in the heart of Texas sits the world's largest
indoor deep-diving training facility — a site that could easily be
described as "nuclear." Constructed with about 7,847 cubic yards
(5,964 cubic m) of concrete and 1,288 tons (1,159 m tons) of steel
reinforcements, this 60-foot- (18-m-) wide cylindrical "pool"
drops to a depth of 127 feet (38 m) with nearly 2 million gallons (7.6
million liters) of clear water in which to dive. And, by the way, the
facility used to house a nuclear-tipped Atlas missile.
For the past 10
years, divers have been getting advanced training in this flooded former
missile silo with the majority of the certifications covering deep, night,
altitude, rescue, mixed-gas and rebreather specialties. Dive Valhalla, which
gets its name from Norse mythology, is not conducive to open-water training,
say owners Mark and Linda Hannifin of Family Scuba Center in Midland, Texas,
but does allow for a unique setting to conduct training for many technical
skills in a controlled environment.
training, nitrogen narcosis can become a factor. This site makes it easy for
instructors to monitor students without losing sight of anybody," Mark Hannifin
said. "The water is nice and clear, so it's less intimidating
on the students than being in a lake where you can't see the surface light
Twenty miles (32
km) southwest of Abilene, Texas, the converted missile silo has had numerous
dive stores contact the Hannifins to arrange weekends for class sessions,
yet only about 300 divers have dived the silo over the past decade. "It's
a unique experience and you have to be a bit adventurous to want to dive
it," said Hannifin. "I don't know where else you can dive a
It's a Long
Getting from the
entrance on the surface to the silo's diver staging area requires divers to
haul their gear down five flights of stairs, through two corridors that are
flanked by large blast doors and into a large room that once housed the silo's
control center and living area. After gearing up, divers then walk through
another corridor to an opening in the silo 25 feet (7.5 m) above the water's
surface and about 45 feet (14 m) below the silo's launch doors. A recently
constructed stairway extends from the opening down 33 feet (10 m) to a
floating dive platform where divers make last-minute gear adjustments before
taking a giant stride into the water. To help divers get back on the
platform, a mounting ladder from a T-38 airplane was added. Hannifin said
the airplane's name was "Echo," which is etched on the ladder. The
title is appropriate for this cavernous setting.
Up until a few
years ago, before the floating platform and stairway were added, divers had
to climb 25 feet (7.5 m) down (and back up) on a pair of extension ladders
that were chained together, while their gear was lowered
to them by rope as they floated in the water. Hannifin and his friends later
bracketed the ladder to the wall and added a winch to lower and raise the
gear. Now divers can easily walk down the staircase wearing their gear.
Additional lighting throughout the structure and especially in the silo has
given it a brighter appearance with ambient light reaching down to at least
60 feet (18 m) underwater. Additional amenities, like bench seating in the
staging room and an indoor bathroom, have also been added recently.
The constant air
and water temperatures (68-degree-Fahrenheit [20-degree-Celsius] air and
60-F [16-C] water) in the silo allow for controlled diving, while on the
outside, Texas' summer temperatures can average over 100 F (38 C) and winter
months can be below freezing. "The divers here in Texas think 60
degrees is pretty cold, but we've had other divers from California and
Alaska that think it's pretty nice," Hannifin said. "It just
depends upon your perspective."
environmental conditions and clear water were key factors in choosing the
silo as the site for a freediving clinic this summer by record holder Tanya
Streeter. Hannifin said the clinic's emphasis was on freediving techniques
within a range of only 50-70 feet (15-21 m) so the silo's ample depth and
clear water made it much more attractive than holding it in a lake that had
little visibility and numerous thermoclines. These factors also contribute
to why instructors like to conduct technical training here. At 2,420 feet
above sea level, the site has the distinction of being a place where you can
dive underground to get an altitude certification.
The site itself
started back in the early 1960s when the U.S. government built a series of
ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) silos around Abilene to act as
part of our MAD (mutually assured destruction) deterrent during the Cold
War. Only two years after it was finished, the silo became obsolete and was
decommissioned; the Atlas missiles were modified to launch Mercury
astronauts and satellites into space. After its contents were sold for
salvage, the silo was left to fill up with groundwater.
found the silo with 11 acres (4.5 hectares) of land for sale in a newspaper
ad while traveling through Abilene. Curiosity got the best of them. "I'd
never seen a missile silo before," Hannifin said. The couple arranged
to see the silo with the owner and offered him a "low-ball" figure
for the site. The Hannifins were surprised when the owner accepted the low
offer and they became the new owners. "I learned that you have to watch
out about what you make an offer on," he said.
intended to make the silo a second home but that idea fizzled out after
awhile and the couple prepared to put the property up for sale. "Before
we sold it, I wanted to dive in the silo to see what was in the water,"
Hannifin said. He said he and a group of fellow instructors dived in and
came up saying, "Hey, that's pretty neat!"
During the third
dive outing at the silo, a few advanced student divers earned deep-diving
certifications so the idea of marketing dive-training trips in addition to
recreational "fun" dives gave the Hannifins the idea of converting
the silo from a residential property to a commercial one. A series of water
and radiation tests proved the silo was safe, so the couple began improving
the site for more dive trips.
A recent class
session at the silo had Hannifin with four students, one doing a nitrox dive
while the other three worked out scenarios for a rescue class. The rescue
students would have to form a plan for an emergency and list some of the
problems divers might face in a missile-silo environment. While portions of
the surface skills could be conducted in the silo, Hannifin said the rest of
the rescue class' dives would be held in a shallower lake area. "A
missing diver would be too easy to find here, so we'll do that at a
lake," he said.
follow a down line from a buoy to the bottom of the structure where steel
debris crisscrosses the area. "We recommend you don't go below 110
feet," Hannifin said. After inspecting the bottom, a return trip up the
silo's curved wall reveals evidence where groundwater has seeped into the
structure by the formation of thin calcium deposits that look like clumps of
string. Around 60 feet (18 m) a ladder extends up to the only structure
remaining in the silo's shaft — an inertial guidance system shack that you
can barely squeeze into without kicking up too much silt. Beyond the shack
are a series of large steel bumpers scaling up the wall. They offer divers
reference points and something to inspect while conducting safety stops
before reaching the surface.
your dive gear and tanks down to the staging area and water's surface is
challenging enough, the trip back up the series of stairs with the equipment
makes you wish that Hannifin's next improvement to the structure would be an
elevator. But that's a small price to pay to write in your logbook that you
dived in the "hall of fallen heroes," something an 82-foot-
(25-m-) long nuclear missile used to call "home."
Dive Valhalla is
only accessed through reservations made through Family Scuba Center in
Midland, Texas, at (866) 217-2822, (432) 686-7333 or at www.familyscuba.com.
If not part of a scheduled class, recreational divers are charged a usage
fee with a minimum number of divers in a group needed to secure the
reservation. To reach the unmarked locked gate of the silo's property, take
Interstate 20 to Abilene and then U.S. Highway 277 south. Lodging and
restaurants are plentiful in Abilene and you can find a listing of them
through the city's chamber of commerce at (915) 677-7241.