The word “cryogenic” is derived from the Greek words kruos, for frost, and genos, for origin of creation. In essence, cryogenics is the technology and art behind producing low temperatures. At Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, that art is imperative to the flying mission.
As the dedicated cryogenics expert at Eielson AFB, Staff Sgt. Dustin Volpi knows how the process should function, how to handle and manage liquid nitrogen and oxygen and how to maintain operational readiness for the base’s fliers.
“We keep the mission going,” said Volpi, the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron fuels distribution supervisor. “Without us, the planes don’t fly. That’s what we do.”
In cryogenics, there is liquid oxygen, primarily used as aviator breathing oxygen, and liquid nitrogen, used to service the emergency power unit on an F-16 Fighting Falcon, which provides emergency electrical and hydraulic power in the event the engine or onboard generators fail. Aircraft maintainers use the cryogenics carts to service the F-16 emergency power units. For this reason, cryogenics is a heavily inclusive part of the flying mission, Volpi said.
Cryogenics at Eielson AFB is different from other bases. When temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero, limitations arise, affecting how quickly tasks can be finished. On top of this, frostbite can easily occur.
“You can only stay out there for so long because it’s so cold,” Volpi said. “It’s even colder standing by the equipment because the cryogenics are so cold. If you add the environment from the gases boiling off, it gets cold really quickly.”
In the summer months, Eielson AFB hosts flying exercises, like Red Flag-Alaska, which increase the workload exponentially, said Tech. Sgt. Adam Cox, the 354th LRS fuels supervisor.
“During the winter months, we service one to two (cryogenics) carts a week. During Red Flag, we service four to six carts twice a day.” Cox said. “You get planes from other organizations that come here, and the product itself comes directly from our facility.”
Even with the additional workload, Cox said the key to a successful mission is having a committed cryogenics expert.
“With our career field, it’s one of the things that all of us are trained on – at least how to issue cryogenics,” he said. “But (Volpi’s) scope and knowledge is further than ours because of his specialty schooling experience.”
Volpi works with two gases that have been cooled and compressed into a liquid. Just like anything else that has been compressed and sealed, accidents can happen if procedures aren’t properly followed.
“When things do go wrong in cryogenics, generally it’s not, ‘That was a close call.’ People get injured,” he said. “If you don’t check the hoses well for deterioration, they could explode. There are no rubber pieces on the hoses – they’re all braided metal and aluminum wrapped together to form a tight seal. So when they burst, it sends shrapnel everywhere.”
While cryogenics may seem like a hazardous career field, Volpi has found an admiration for what he works with every day.
“You have to have a healthy respect for the product,” Volpi said. “You always have an inherent danger. Liquid oxygen is combustible, and liquid nitrogen displaces oxygen, so there’s the risk of asphyxiation. As long as you’re aware of the dangers and you do what you’re supposed to do, you mitigate those dangers to a very minimal level.”
Despite these risks and the cold environment, Volpi enjoys what he does. Cryogenics has been part of his life for nearly 10 years, making it more than just work.
“It’s a fun job,” he said. “You get to work with stuff that nobody else in the Air Force does. Even though there is no real way to compensate for the cold, it’s part of your job, so you just deal with it and press at it.”
Regardless of how dangerous cryogenics is, Volpi and his team constantly work to provide the necessary means for the F-16s. After all, Eielson AFB’s flying mission largely depends on a functioning cryogenics shop – a shop that Volpi is proud to lead.