Ice bridge closes gap to range complex

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
From the first day the Tanana River in Alaska is frozen enough to walk on, Airmen from the Eielson Air Force Base’s 354th Civil Engineer Squadron’s range maintenance shop drill holes, pump water and let it freeze, layer after layer.

It's a constant game of hop scotch across sand bars, islands, sloughs, creeks and goliath spans of the main river, to build an ice bridge that connects civilization to the Blair Lakes Bomb Range that is 33 miles away through the wilderness.

"We don't always know what we have for ice, so it's a little sketchy going across at first," said Shawn Kelly, the 354th CES range maintenance foreman. "Our first day out we had about 14 inches of ice all the way across. Our goal is to end up with 5 feet of ice, but after two weeks we were running between 24 and 30 inches."

With the bridge completed, more than 190,000 gallons of fuel, thousands of cubic yards of lumber, and other heavy materials will be delivered, which otherwise couldn't have been moved by helicopter. The bridge has to be constructed every other year to provide access to the nearly $20 million range complex used to train pilots from around the world during Red Flag-Alaska exercises.

A water use permit is obtained from the state and no foreign materials are used during the construction, so as the weather warms long after the New Year, time washes away any tractor marks and snow berms used to form the ice.

"One of the best parts of this job is being out here, where hardly anyone will ever go, and getting to build something that will have a huge impact," said Senior Airmen Tyler Dray, a 354th CES range maintenance structures journeyman. "Two years of fuel alone would cost a fortune to helicopter (supplies and equipment) in to the range. This bridge hardly costs anything and doesn't affect the environment either."

However, getting to the completion point is quite the process. Kelly said the challenges really come when the mercury dips to minus 50 degrees, but the advantages make up for it.

"Ice is easy to make when it's that cold, but keeping pumps and other equipment running or started is extremely tough," he said. "The opposite challenge is when it's 7 degrees like it has been and we have a (snow) flurry, the water doesn't freeze well and the snow insulates its warmth."

To overcome the overwhelming cold on the engines and machinery, they are started prior to leaving Eielson AFB, more than 30 miles away, and are ran the entire day. After being in the damp environment, air filters are cleaned daily and everything is lubricated using high-grade grease.

Second to the fluctuating freezing temperatures, the few hours of daylight are often accompanied by ice fog, which can make visibility next to nothing. Reflective "refrigerator suits" are worn to help keep the Airmen warm and offer some form of visibility; but with no landmarks on the open ice to keep track of the trail, the teams employ one simple trick to help guide them home.

"Flags -- simple orange (flags) where we drill holes mark the path," Kelly said. "It can be clear as day or pitch dark with a great view of the Northern Lights one minute then pea soup the next. Getting lost out here could mean not making it home at all."

The mixed unit of civilians and Airmen is one of the only teams able to build an ice bridge. Seasoned retired enlisted members who have stayed in Alaska offer knowledge to the newer service members who often endure the process for the first time. Generally, most enlisted members will build three bridges throughout their interior Alaskan tour.

"There are so many tricks, tips and processes to get this job done safely -- these guys definitely know what's going on," Dray said. "Even if it's something they haven't seen before or we have a suggestion, we all put our heads together to get it done and improve processes."

Because building the bridge is so unconventional, equipment is sometimes fashioned or improved by hand to overcome the arctic environment. This year, sleds were used to carry pumps and augers across chunks of ice that were miles wide. As the equipment was dragged, the snow and ice were flattened and compacted.

"When we are on land we leave a layer of snow so we can reduce impact on soil and foliage, but when spring comes and the ice melts, the entire process is washed down the river," Kelly said. "Next time we start again the river will be all different, the island's trees will be bigger and the weather will bring all new challenges."