EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Long Alaskan winter not only brings extreme cold weather, it brings a drastic change in topography. To ensure the mission continues, the 354th Range Squadron utilizes an ingenious solution.
In collaboration with the 19th and 99th Civil Engineer Squadrons, the 354th RANS constructed ice bridges within the Blair Lake Range Complex to provide access to its users at the start of winter in 2022.
“The ice bridge is made of layers of ice that creates a strong enough natural bridge over bodies of water while tying in the edges of land for a seamless transition,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dawson Templer, a 19th Civil Engineer Squadron structural craftsman.
There are currently four ice bridges that connect trails within the range and provide a way to cross bodies of water without the need to construct a permanent bridge. From setting up targets for pilots to train, to ground units conducting arctic survival training within the range, the trail is what makes operations at the BLRC possible.
“This trail is crucial for the delivery of fuel that we use all year long to heat and power our facilities at Blair Lake Range Complex,” said Templer.
The bridge itself is built solely with ice. The ice that forms naturally on the ground during this season provides the foundation of the bridge, and layers of compacted snow are then added on top and routinely maintained by the crews. Snow and water are used to create berms which serve as a barrier around the perimeter of the crossing.
A hole is drilled on the bridge in order to pump water from the ground. This is then used to flood the crossing and, depending on the weather, can freeze overnight or in less than 30 minutes, adding another layer of ice to the bridge.
“We utilize this process of layering ice to create an extremely solid and strong bridge,” said Templer.
The thickness of the ice bridge determines what equipment can be transported to the range. To maintain the integrity of the bridge, the ice should at least be 48 inches thick. This ensures the bridge is strong enough to support the weight of a fuel tractor trailer.
While the bridge itself is not a new idea, there are new faces that join the team behind its construction at the start of winter each year. Last year in October, eight Airmen from the 19th and 99th CES joined two 354th RANS range maintenance personnel who all worked diligently to construct and maintain the 28-mile trail.
“We are constantly battling against time and weather while maintaining a safe work environment in some of the most remote working conditions,” Templer said. “It took about two months of daily maintenance to make traveling on the trail with a six-passenger truck possible.”
Maintaining the winter trails and ice bridges requires constant manning. The Airmen assigned to this particular mission all volunteered to go to Eielson and were willing to take on ten to 12-hour shifts and brave the harsh Alaskan winter.
“Even though very few people know this happens deep into the Tanana Flats, the safety of all who pass over the trail and ice bridges and the satisfaction of watching it evolve from 28-miles of impassable snow-covered permafrost and four water crossings to a fully functioning, natural trail is worth every ounce of effort we give,” said Templer.