At a Glance

Two Air Force units in Alaska take various steps to keep vehicles and equipment running in extreme weather conditions:

  • Use of an electrical pad, blanket, or trickle charger to keep a battery from freezing
  • Use of Arctic-grade hoses, tires, and fluids
  • To unfreeze the vehicles, use of parachutes to cover the vehicle, and an internal heat source such as a generator to warm the vehicle.

It’s a chilly November day at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. SMSgt. Robert Stewart gets a status report on the snow vehicle fleet to ensure the base has the equipment it needs to handle any adverse weather. How adverse?

“Right now the outside air temperature is 10 degrees above zero,” said Stewart, vehicle fleet manager for the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron. “It’s the time of year when it’s kind of up and down. You get some warm weather — and when I say warm, that’s 30 to 40 degrees — and then it will get below zero.”

About 300 miles away also in Alaska is another U.S. Air Force base, Joint Base Elmendorf-­Richardson, 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron. Vehicle management chief SMSgt. Ronald Cole oversees maintenance of more than 100 vehicles that support snow removal operations. Those operations include “clearing the roadways so the base populace can get around, as well as keeping the airfield open so the airplanes can take off and land,” Cole said.

Members of the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle maintenance shop work to repair a broken bulldozer in November 2013. They use a portable heater to warm the frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute, which traps in heat and helps thaw the vehicle. Jump-starting a frozen battery without first thawing it can cause it to explode, and technicians have to be careful to avoid frostbite while working on vehicles. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor

Members of the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle maintenance shop work to repair a broken bulldozer in November 2013. They use a portable heater to warm the frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute, which traps in heat and helps thaw the vehicle. Jump-starting a frozen battery without first thawing it can cause it to explode, and technicians have to be careful to avoid frostbite while working on vehicles. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor

The two Air Force bases operate separately from one another, but they are similar in various ways. Both operations lease their cars and light-duty trucks from the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). In addition to passenger cars and trucks, Stewart oversees equipment such as snow brooms, snow blowers, snow plows, graders, and dump trucks. No day is typical, but many days after he gets a status report on the snow vehicles, he will check on the rest of the vehicle fleet to ensure it is ready for cold-weather duty.

“If it’s cold weather, we may get an increase of mobile maintenance calls where we actually have to get out in the field and jump-start stuff that’s cold,” he said. “Of course we’re always concerned about personnel safety when it gets real cold. We’re not sending people out when it’s 50 below.”

Both Air Force bases must deal with vehicle management issues that normal weather fleets rarely confront. One example: The electrical demand on a frozen battery can cause it to explode. An electrical pad, blanket, or installation of a trickle charger plugged into an external source are a few methods to keep a battery from freezing.

The 354th: Heat Pads On Oil Pans, Trickle Chargers for Battery Heat Blankets

“We manage the vehicle fleet here in support of the Arctic operations,” Stewart said of the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron’s work in the extreme-weather environment. “We support all of our flying operations.” Vehicles include pick-up trucks, sedans, and heavier-duty trucks that tow aircraft. Equipment include graders, runway snow removal equipment, construction equipment, and “flight line support” such as airplane refueling equipment. Cars are a mix of Fords, Chevrolets, and Dodges. Military and civil service personnel drive the cars and pickup trucks around the base for general work purposes. Typical lifecycle for pickups and sedans can be as much as 15 years. Heavy equipment lifecycle is around 10 years.

Stewart’s Logistics Readiness Squadron performs all the maintenance on the vehicles from the time the unit acquires them. He describes the maintenance facility as organized with a floor plan but not like a typical mechanic’s facility. Because of the diversity of the equipment, the shop is large enough to accommodate various vehicle and equipment types.

Upon acquisition of a vehicle, winterizing it is the first step. That includes installation of heat pads on the oil pans and transmission fans. Installation of the trickle chargers for the battery heat blankets is another step.

Journeymen work to repair a frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor

Journeymen work to repair a frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor

The squadron installs engine block heaters as well. Stewart says block heaters can plug into a 110-volt electrical outlet, and they will maintain the engine coolant, engine oil, transmission oil, and batteries “so that when it is 50 degrees below and you turn the key on, the thing actually starts.”

Stewart calls MSgt. James Umholtz his “right-hand man” for the unit. Umholtz said vehicle problems in extreme climates can occur when the vehicle is left outside for a long period. Even with the winterization systems, parts are susceptible to freezing. To unfreeze the vehicle, the squadron uses parachutes to cover the vehicle, then pipes in heat through an internal heat source such as a generator. That warms the vehicle so the team can work on it.

During extremely cold temperatures, rubber and steel components become brittle and can snap. When someone initially starts a vehicle in that climate and turns the steering wheel, a power steering line can break.

 “You either have to let it warm up or go to an Arctic-grade type of hose or steel,” Umholtz said. “Synthetic lubricants help.”

 “Sometimes you have to do a little research and realize you can buy Arctic-grade hoses, Arctic-grade tires, and Arctic-grade fluids,” said Stewart, who has been stationed in Alaska for eight years. “As a fleet manager working in an environment like this, it’s very important to know those types of things are out there for you and to use them.” His unit gets parts much like in the rest of the country. A Napa Auto Parts location is in the area, as well as a Caterpillar dealership. The unit does a lot of the parts ordering online.

 “Or we have to go down to Anchorage and get them. We can order a lot of it locally. But due to where we are, a lot of times it’s not available. Even the local vendors we deal with have to go down to the lower 48. It’s a pretty good learning curve for any fleet manager in the workforce because we move around so much. To spend your whole career in a warm climate and then come up here and try to maintain vehicles in this type of environment can be a struggle.”

Umholtz and Stewart came to the Air Force as mechanics, working on aircraft support equipment and construction equipment. “We basically started out as maintainers or analysts, and as you move through the ranks, fleet manager,” Stewart said. Knowledge of what the Arctic elements can do to a vehicle is an important aspect of his position. The climate causes premature wear, and mechanics perform maintenance more frequently than in a warmer climate.

Driver safety is important in all climates, but it is a main focus in Alaska. Although Stewart’s squadron does not manage the drivers, he and his team conduct an annual safety briefing to the leaders of the organizations that use the vehicles.

The unit will occasionally go on a mobile call to repair a vehicle in the field. Sometimes, the extreme weather prevents the group from getting to the vehicle.

 “The only way to get there is with a snowmobile or an all-terrain vehicle,” Stewart said. “Sometimes we have to use different means to get out in the field.”[PAGEBREAK]

The 673rd: Bumper-To-Bumper Inspection Part of Three-Phase Maintenance

The 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron oversees rollover snow plows, snow brooms with an 18-foot broom on the front to scrape the snow off the roadways, dump trucks, loaders, aircraft de-icers, road graders, and sanders positioned behind the snow brooms. The sanders lay sand down to make the road less slippery. The group oversees a mix of cars and light-duty trucks from various domestic manufacturers for getting the base personnel around. Civil engineers on the base who belong to an organization dedicated to snow removal do most of the driving.

“The base is set up like a small city, so you have utility vehicles like telephone maintenance vehicles, passenger cars, and pickup trucks to accomplish the mission here,” Cole said.

He adds that preventive maintenance is key to keeping the snow equipment running, and the unit uses a three-phase system to get a jump on maintenance issues before things go wrong.

Inspecting the vehicle is the first phase. After Cole or civilian technician Leon Sutton and a staff inspector look over the vehicle for safety and mechanical issues, the people who will be driving the vehicle note any problems they see. Bringing the vehicle into the main shop for repairs is the second step, and the technicians do a bumper-to-­bumper inspection, looking for items they don’t think will make it through the winter. Then the team performs oil changes and other preventive maintenance tasks.

“Once we’re done with that, we kind of do the reverse,” Umholtz said. “My inspector will turn it back over to the operators, they will do an inspection, and then it’s released to go back out for six more months and do its mission.” Once the vehicle is in service, the team uses engine block, battery, and oil pan heaters just like the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron.

Fleet vehicles have to be maintained more often in Death Valley, Calif., known for extreme heat. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Fleet vehicles have to be maintained more often in Death Valley, Calif., known for extreme heat. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

The 673rd uses five different maintenance locations, and each one maintains different types of vehicles. One site is for maintenance of the snow removal assets and construction equipment. Another location services aircraft de-icers and tractors that tow the aircraft. Another is dedicated to fire trucks, another is a bus shop, and the fifth is a refueling shop.

The unit interacts frequently with the small number of manufacturers that produce the snow equipment. The equipment is used all over the world at other airports in addition to the 673rd in Alaska.

“We’ve developed a relationship with the manufacturers where they like to see everything we do,” Cole said. “We tell them this system is not working, they take a look at that and think about redesigning the vehicle based on some of the things we tell them. There’s probably no one else who utilizes them like we do.”

Extreme Hot Weather Fleet Uses Preventive Measures and Common Sense

In terms of weather, Death Valley, Calif., is a land of extremes. Winters will see snowfall in higher elevations, though rarely on the valley floor. However, the area is known for its heat. In 2012, summer weather rose as high as 129 degrees, and it was regularly higher than 120 degrees.

At Death Valley National Park, the park rangers and law enforcement officials drive mostly American pickup trucks, Jeeps, vans, and sedans, in addition to Ford Escape hybrids and Honda Insight hybrid vehicles. Keeping those vehicles running is a challenge in the extreme hot weather, said Death Valley National Park Spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman.

Unlike cold weather fleets, which use oil pan heaters and other measures to keep vehicles running, not much can be done for vehicles in hot weather, other than to perform preventive maintenance more often. Oil change intervals are about 3,000 miles for most vehicles.

The maintenance crew checks tires more often because they can become cracked. Because of dust and heavy winds, the crew checks air filters often.

Other hot weather problems for the vehicles include short lifespan for rubber, vinyl, and plastic parts. Even getting into the vehicles is problematic for drivers.

 “If it’s 120 degrees outside, it’s a lot hotter in the car,” Chipman said. “We use windshield screens, leave windows open, and immediately turn on the air conditioning.” Sand accumulates in the vehicles, and they must be cleaned more often. “We park in the shade if we can,” Chipman said.

In the rare case that drivers drive through vegetation, they must take precautions because vegetation getting in the undercarriage of the vehicle can cause a fire.

“We just try to avoid vegetation and use common sense,” Chipman said.

Preventing Vehicle Damage in Icy Conditions

Sgt. James Umholtz, who works on the fleet at the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron, said antifreeze in a diluted state and under extremely low temperatures can cause massive damage to the engine block, heads, and radiator.

The correct mixture of antifreeze and installation of a block heater will reduce the likelihood of the coolant freezing and causing damage, Umholtz said. He added that mechanics can install a “cold-front” to the front of a vehicle, allowing the engine to sustain heat, optimizing fuel efficiency and providing warmth for the interior. A cold-front is a covering of the grill preventing airflow across the radiator.

Another Situation Most Fleets Don’t Typically Face
The 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron about a year ago during extreme cold was called to retrieve a snowcat vehicle that base personnel uses to get to remote locations with challenging off-road surfaces. The snowcat had broken down, and Cole’s team transported a generator to the location to heat the engine so the team could work on it. But the generator would not start once the team got it to the vehicle’s location.

The squadron then transported the generator to a building a couple hours away. The team fixed the generator inside the building and kept the generator running while using an all-terrain vehicle to pull the generator back to the snowcat’s location. The team was able to place a tent over the snowcat and use the generator to warm it.

“Then our technicians were able to fix the issues with it and get it out of that location,” SMSgt. Ronald Cole, vehicle management chief, said.

Sources:

  • Cheryl Chipman, spokeswoman, Death Valley National Park
  • SMSgt. Ronald Cole, vehicle management chief, U.S. Air Force Base, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron, Alaska
  • SMSgt. Robert Stewart, vehicle fleet manager, 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska
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