High-Altitude Testing Facility
Building Number 1517 and 1518

This pyrotechnics testing complex sat in a well-protected location surrounded by natural berms, just inside the Former Rocket Test Area Historic District. Reflecting the military's Cold-War era readiness agenda, the facility was designed to simulate conditions of high-altitude flight. It consisted of two steel cone-shaped altitude test chambers and the buildings housing the pumps and instrumentation used to operate the chambers and monitor the tests conducted in them. The first structures, erected in 1956 (based on plans drawn up in 1953-54), included one 75-foot-long test chamber (Chamber No. 1) and the long, narrow pump room adjacent to its south (both were considered Building 1517); a frame instrument room behind the chamber (Building 1518); a frame electrical control room (later referred to as 1517A) adjacent to the instrument room and abutting the rear corner of the pump room; and small magazines set off in the woods nearby (1519 and 1520 - see building inventory). Six vacuum pumps were installed in the pump room and connected to the chamber (see tab). A conditioning room, to house equipment used to bring test items to temperature specifications, was added immediately behind the pump room in 1957 or '58. This structure, sometimes labeled as Building 1517A (but not to be confused with the adjacent electrical control room), was no longer standing at the time the complex was surveyed for historic architecture. Plans for a second steel test chamber, Chamber No. 2, were drawn up in 1957, and construction was completed circa 1960. At that time the instrument room at the rear was expanded to encompass the back of the second chamber. In 1964 a new concrete-block observation room (Building 1518A) was constructed between the two test chambers, toward the front. A new exhaust system for the chambers was installed in 1968, including a dome on Chamber No. 2 to facilitate the dispersion of smoke and powder from flare tests.

Building Information

Year Built

1956 through1965

Fabric

Pump room: concrete foundations, transite walls, aluminum and asbestos roof Test chambers: steel resting on concrete piers Instrument and control room: concrete foundations, frame walls, build-up roof Observation room: concrete foundation, concrete block walls, rolled roof

Size

Pump room: 17' x 95' Chambers: 5' to 15' outer diameter, 75' long Instrument room: 17' x 38' with additions of 16' x 30' and 8' x 11' Control room: 9' x 26' Conditioning room: 16' x 26' Observation room: 20' x 30'

Alterations

Conditioning room added 1957-58; second chamber and addition to instrument room c. 1960; observation room 1964; dome on second chamber 1968

High-Altitude Simulation

In order to test how flares and other pyrotechnic devices would work at high altitudes, vacuum pumps were used to pump air out of the long, cone-shaped steel chambers until a specific reduced atmospheric pressure was reached. In the Building 1517 pump room, six vacuum pumps (manufactured by the Beach Russ Company of New York) were installed in a row on concrete bases. Piping led overhead to the two test chambers. During a test, once the pumps had been engaged and the chamber was ready, the item would be detonated while instruments recorded information on its performance. Technicians could access the chambers to set up tests and clean up afterward via "submarine" type metal doors located toward the front of each chamber, and could monitor the tests visually from the instrument room or from outside, through special ports in the end of the chambers. Problems encountered with the high-altitude simulation facilities included the huge electrical output required to start the pumps and bring them to capacity, and difficulties providing adequate ventilation for the chambers, which would typically fill with smoke and debris from firings. Once the dome was added to Chamber No. 2, Chamber No. 1 was no longer used routinely.

Building No. 1517/1518 Diagram Building No. 1517/1518 Building No. 1517/1518

We Worked Here

Russell Broad

Male silhoutte

Russell Broad worked at the High-Altitude Test Chambers as a chemical engineer. Mr. Broad explains the "lot acceptance testing" of pyrotechnic items that was conducted here.

Jimmie Lee

Male silhoutte

Jimmie Lee worked as a pyrotechnic technician at the High-Altitude Test Chambers. Mr. Lee describes the use of the chambers, setting up for a test, and the vacuum pumps.   He then explains the purpose of the dome on Chamber No. 2.

Building No. 1517/1518 Building No. 1517/1518Building No. 1517/1518

Obsolete and Abandoned

The high-altitude pyrotechnics test chambers were costly and difficult to maintain. They were used less and less through the 1970s and by the 1980s were essentially obsolete. By the time of their demolition, they had fallen into complete disrepair.

Building No 1517/1518 Building 1517/1518

The instrument room circa 1960

Building No. 1517/1518Building No. 1517/1518

The instrument room in 2011

Additional Building Photographs

Building No. 1517/1518

Pump room, northeast corner

Building No. 1517/1518

Pump room, oil storage and filter

Building No. 1517/1518

North end of Chamber No. 1 inside instrument room

Building No. 1517/1518

Control room

Building No. 1517/1518

Pump room, south and east elevations

Building No. 1517/1518

Instrument room and Test Chamber No. 2

Building No. 1517/1518

Observation room, east (front) elevation

Building No. 1517/1518

Control room, east elevation, with pump room at left and instrument room at right

Building No. 1517/1518

Pump room, north (rear) elevation

Building No. 1517/1518

Instrument room, north (rear) elevation

Building No. 1517/1518

Observation room, west (rear) elevation

Building No. 1517/1518

North end of Chamber No. 2 entering instrument room

Building 1517/1518 Plans (click for zoomable image)

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Topography

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Re-design of observation port

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Plan for new exhaust system

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Dome

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Chamber No. 1, designed 1953

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Plan for adding second chamber

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Observation room

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Overall plan

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Conditioning room

  • Building 1517/1518 plan

    Pump alterations