Full steam ahead

Art covers one of the first boilers inside the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Since 1951, the plant has been upgraded from two boilers with five megawatts of power to five boilers that provide 25 megawatts of power for the base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Art covers one of the first boilers inside the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Since 1951, the plant has been upgraded from two boilers with five megawatts of power to five boilers that provide 25 megawatts of power for the base.

More than 63 years ago, two steam turbines were installed on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, powered by coal carved out from Alaskan rock.

The base’s residents and workers have relied on the turbines that make up the base’s central heat and power plant as their primary source for power and heat, and to this day, the plant hasn’t failed in its mission.

In fact, its responsibility has grown along with the base, as three other turbines were added to service the $7.8 billion worth of infrastructure on the remote base, which lies 26 miles away from the closest power company.

“This mission is basically the heart of the base, pushing out heat like a heart pumps blood through the veins,” said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Padgett, the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron plant superintendent.

David Ritter, a locomotive operator, prepares to transport coal to the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The plant is completely civilian operated and serves as the single source of heat and power for the entire base. (U.S. Air Force photo by/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

David Ritter, a locomotive operator, prepares to transport coal to the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The plant is completely civilian operated and serves as the single source of heat and power for the entire base.

Outside of the plant, a locomotive proudly displaying “Air Force” in white letters on a blue background while snow begins to accumulate around its wheels. During winter months, the locomotive shuttles in nearly 800 tons of coal that’s mined about 100 miles south of the base, while the coal load drops to about half that in the summer.

Nestled deep inside the heart of the plant, warm red light emanates from the boiler room floor, where small pieces of crushed coal are gravity fed into the boiler. Temperatures inside reach 1,200 degrees and heat water into steam that powers the turbines.

The first two turbines were installed in 1951 and are built like tanks hearkens back to a time of early American raw power. The kind of metal today’s Airmen might have heard their grandparents talk about.

“Things aren’t always made like they used to be,” Padgett says as he walks past the two turbines, running his hand along artwork plant workers have painted over the years, each turbine’s drawing telling a snapshot of a story. “This plant was built to last.”

An Air Force locomotive prepares to transport coal to the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The locomotive transports 800 tons of coal during the winter months and is the sole source of heat and power for the entire base. (U.S. Air Force photo by/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

An Air Force locomotive prepares to transport coal to the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The locomotive transports 800 tons of coal during the winter months and is the sole source of heat and power for the entire base.

Though the two turbines have been running since the 1950s, several updates have been made to ensure a long lifecycle, along with modernizing their control features to improve efficiency.

“It’s pretty cool to see that under a good maintenance program and with good operators, something 60 years old can perform this well and this long,” Padgett said.

The maintenance program has slowly increased the turbine’s efficiency, while maintaining full turbine power output.

When the first two turbines were installed, they were able to collectively sustain five megawatts of power produced for the base, according to Padgett. Today, the five turbines can produce up to 25 megawatts, requiring on average only 33 percent of the amount of steam to produce a megawatt of power.

An locomotive sits in front of the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Each winter, the locomotive operators transport up to 800 tons of coal to the power plant that provides the base with heat and power.

An locomotive sits in front of the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Each winter, the locomotive operators transport up to 800 tons of coal to the power plant that provides the base with heat and power.
When temperatures reach as low as minus 40, the plant can go through 800 pounds of coal in a day.

For reference, the base averages a sustained nine to 10 megawatts of power during the summer and 13 to 15 in the winter.

According to Padgett, modernization efforts include “better emission controls, better controls on the turbines and more efficient processes. Even though the turbines are old, the controls and mechanisms that operate them are the most state of the art,” he said. The base’s in-house maintenance team performs 40 percent of these equipment modernizations and maintenance.

An easy method base leaders use to ensure the maintenance team is performing their mission is the continuous signal of white steam coming from the plant’s stacks as moisture within the coal is evaporated and expelled. Many Airmen at the base can take one look at the plant in the early morning to tell if it will be a good or bad day, according to Padgett.

“’Every morning the first thing I do is look out the window to see if steam is coming out of the plant,’” a base leader told Padgett. ‘“If I see that stack steaming, then it’s going to be a good day.’”

Jeff Casey, a locomotive operator, watches as an Air Force locomotive arrives with coal to the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The locomotive transports 800 tons of coal during the winter months and is the sole source of heat and power for the entire base. (U.S. Air Force photo by/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Jeff Casey, a locomotive operator, watches as an Air Force locomotive arrives with coal to the central heat and power plant at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The locomotive transports 800 tons of coal during the winter months and is the sole source of heat and power for the entire base.

Considering the average January low temperature is minus 17 degrees, a bad day can be catastrophic if power and heat are lost.

“We’re at the interior of Alaska where the temps can drop to negative 50 during the winter,” Padgett said. “Eielson is a self-supporting outpost in Alaska. We provide our own water, sewer, heat and power. A basic emergency can snowball and become unrecoverable, though that has not happened in Eielson’s history.”

As Padgett leaves work for the day, he drives by base housing. Though it’s roughly 5 p.m., the Alaskan sky is already dark on this minus 10-degree day when the sun only made a brief, three-hour appearance before disappearing again.

Glancing out the window, he sees a family arrive home from their day. The kids, bundled up in their warmest clothes, are hurried into the house where warmth awaits them.

“I’m reminded every single day by the people on base of our mission here,” Padgett said. “Everyone is impacted by this plant. Every home is filled with heat from this plant. That thought never leaves my mind.”

Coal is offloaded from an Air Force locomotive at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The coal is offloaded into compartments and then crushed into small pieces before being sent to one of the boilers to create energy. The base reserves a 90-day coal supply for emergency situations. (U.S. Air Force photo by/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Coal is offloaded from an Air Force locomotive at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The coal is offloaded into compartments and then crushed into small pieces before being sent to one of the boilers to create energy. The base reserves a 90-day coal supply for emergency situations.

Cool School


Each year, roughly 700 students attend the Air Force’s Arctic Survival School at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. While there, students from all services learn how to win the fight against Mother Nature, as temperatures average nearly 30 degrees below zero. U.S. Air Force video // Andrew Arthur Breese | Music // Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse


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A few miles north of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, a group of students stand, huddled together along a three-mile, snowcapped mountain ridge jutting through the frozen Arctic tundra.

“Mother nature does not like you in this situation,” shouts Survival Instructor Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, as billows of hot breath escape his mouth and crystalize in the early morning freeze. “ She’s violent. She’s harsh. Your job is to survive until help comes; her job is to find a way to take your life.”

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, creates a small fire with a pile of tender branches during training. Fires can be used for signaling, heat and food during real-world survival situations.  To become a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist, one must know how to create a fire in many different types of weather conditions.

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, creates a small fire with a pile of tender branches during training. Fires can be used for signaling, heat and food during real-world survival situations. To become a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist, one must know how to create a fire in many different types of weather conditions.

The students have just begun a battle of survival, and in these extreme elements, even the mightiest of men have lost their fight. It’s Reab’s job, along with seven other Arctic Survival School instructors, to teach the students to overcome their personal limitations and give them the tools to win and survive.

 “It’s their life on the line, not ours,” said Reab who’s assigned to Det. 1, 66th Training Squadron at Eielson AFB. “When a pilot egresses from their plane, they’re on the ground. It’s them that’s going to get injured; it’s them that may have issues out there. We’re never going to be by their side, so we need to show the students what they’re made of.”

 Each year, more than 700 students attend the Arctic Survival School’s five-day course. While a majority of the students are Alaska-based aircrew, the course is open to all.

According the school’s commander, Maj. William Mercer, the school regularly has students from the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations that find their members operating in arctic conditions.

Surviving and returning with honor is every service member’s mission when they find themselves lost behind enemy lines and out of contact with their wingmen, according to Reab, who has been a survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist for more than eight years.

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det. 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, hikes the side of a mountain outside of the U.S. Air Force Arctic Survival School training area on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Instructors regularly hike and perform training scenarios to prepare for the physical demands of instructor duties and to remain proficient for annual Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape requirements.

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det. 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, hikes the side of a mountain outside of the U.S. Air Force Arctic Survival School training area on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Instructors regularly hike and perform training scenarios to prepare for the physical demands of instructor duties and to remain proficient for annual Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape requirements.

“Imagine being by yourself in the middle of nowhere, you’ve just egressed from a fighter (aircraft) and you’re floating to the earth,” Reab tells his students. “All you see is thousands upon thousands of miles of nothingness — just trees and snow. It’s going to cause you to second-guess yourself. That psychological aspect — you’re going to have to fight and overcome that.”

Making that mission even harder is the lack of tools an ejected pilot or aircrew member might have at their disposal.

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron, crew chief, walks with a walking sleeping bag during arctic survival school. As an aircraft mechanic, Simon would have access to a walking sleeping bag if his aircraft ever went down.

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron, crew chief, walks with a walking sleeping bag during arctic survival school. As an aircraft mechanic, Simon would have access to a walking sleeping bag if his aircraft ever went down.

The survivor is only going to have a finite amount of gear, Reab said. “Out here, if something breaks, you can’t throw it out. You have to look around. You have to figure out how to make something that’s going to function. If you want something, you’re going to have to develop that item.”

“We have all this stuff around us. We need to find a way to use it,” Reab said. “In extreme cold, your own equipment is going to have its own fight for survival. You have to fall back on primitive means.”

Staff Sgt. Ryan Rogers, Det. 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, explains how to melt snow and filter it through a parachute bag during field training at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The course is five days in duration with instruction in familiarization with the arctic environment, medical, personal protection, sustenance and signaling.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Rogers, Det. 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, explains how to melt snow and filter it through a parachute bag during field training at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The course is five days in duration with instruction in familiarization with the arctic environment, medical, personal protection, sustenance and signaling.

Those primitive means have been taught at the Cool School for nearly 60 years, making the course one of the oldest in Air Education and Training Command. Even with that extensive history, the course curriculum hasn’t changed much, since the practice of primitive survival in the Arctic isn’t based on the latest technology.

Once survivors are able to get in the right mental state and begin improvising things around them, the battle’s momentum begins to swing in their favor. They begin fighting back.

Gathering his eight students, Reab coaches the survivors on how to use the elements around them to begin to win their fight against Mother Nature.

Within hours of their hike into camp from their simulated crash site, students begin to run out of water.

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det. 1, 66th Training Squadron, explains the importance of drinking water and the advantages of a canteen during survival situations at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The course is five days in duration with instruction in familiarization with the arctic environment, medical, personal protection, sustenance and signaling.

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det. 1, 66th Training Squadron, explains the importance of drinking water and the advantages of a canteen during survival situations at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The course is five days in duration with instruction in familiarization with the arctic environment, medical, personal protection, sustenance and signaling.

Reab demonstrates how to build a fire using materials gathered from what is around them. Once the fire is built, the students are shown several methods of gathering water from snow using either a parachute, which would have been at their crash site, or an empty tin can.

“These methods have been taught for decades,” Reab said. “They work, which is why we haven’t changed our lessons much.”

As the students gather around Reab like Boy Scouts huddled around their Scout leader, the instructor teaches them how to convert the same snow many would consider an adversary into an ally.

On the first night in the field, students are taught to build a primitive shelter, absent isolation and left wide open for any heat to escape.

“Yeah, that sucked,” said one student the next morning. “This is going to be a real (pain) if we sleep like that again.”

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron, crew chief, prepares the cover for his thermalized A-frame shelter during arctic survival training at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The A-frame shelter is designed to keep the survivor warm and dry to endure harsh arctic nights.

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron, crew chief, prepares the cover for his thermalized A-frame shelter during arctic survival training at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The A-frame shelter is designed to keep the survivor warm and dry to endure harsh arctic nights.

During the second day, Reab teaches the students how to build a more advanced shelter and use the elements to their advantage, giving them a good night’s sleep in a warm shelter.

“Most people would look at snow and say, ‘If I touch it, I’m going to get cold,’” Reab said. “We can turn around and use snow for more warmth by covering a small structure with eight inches of snow. Using this thing that people would consider harsh or damning in a survival situation, you’ve created a thermalized structure.”

Built around a frame of wood and a parachute or tarp, the thermalized A-frame structure Reab teaches his students to build can reach temperatures up to 30 degrees.

When temperatures are below zero, the victory of getting even slightly warmer could start to tip the scale in favor of the survivor — especially from a psychological standpoint, the Cool School instructors say.

Inside their cramped individual structures, the students are left alone overnight with just their thoughts.

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron crew chief, looks out of his thermalized A-frame tent during arctic survival school. The thermalized A-frame is designed to keep survivors warm and dry in arctic environments. Simon is also a member of the crash disable damage recover team responsible for retrieving downed aircraft in emergency situations.

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron crew chief, looks out of his thermalized A-frame tent during arctic survival school. The thermalized A-frame is designed to keep survivors warm and dry in arctic environments. Simon is also a member of the crash disable damage recover team responsible for retrieving downed aircraft in emergency situations.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to mess with your mind out there,” Reab said. “Off in the distance, all you hear is howling wolves. (If) I’m out here, in the middle of nowhere, and I’m sleeping in a life raft covered with snow, it raises a few hairs on the back of the neck.”

Reab says the ebb and flow of a person’s mental battle is natural. “You make a shelter, but then there are wolves. You melt snow into water, then you spill it on yourself and it freezes. But there is one thing you can control: mental strength.

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron, crew chief, reach for beef with make-shift chopsticks created from a tree branch during arctic survival school at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Students were challenged to improvise and practice survival skills with the basic elements.

Airman 1st Class Ray Simon, 3rd Maintenance Support Squadron, crew chief, reach for beef with make-shift chopsticks created from a tree branch during arctic survival school at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Students were challenged to improvise and practice survival skills with the basic elements.

“People who have that determination … that will to survive – those are the ones that have the positive mindset to survive,” he said. “The people who are weak minded are the ones you hear about in the news, who curl up under a tree and die.

“The difference between the strong and the weak is the people who push through. It’s the people who can still keep going when their feet are cold. It’s the people who can keep going when they’re tired or hungry. Those people, who push through, are going to survive.

Displayed through the Arctic Survival School’s halls are nearly 100 newspaper clippings of men and women who have fought this battle against nature, some who survived and others who didn’t.

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, creates a small fire with a pile of tender branches during training. Fires can be used for signaling, heat and food during real-world survival situations.  To become a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist, one must know how to create a fire in many different types of weather conditions.

Staff Sgt. Seth Reab, Det 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School instructor, creates a small fire with a pile of tender branches during training. Fires can be used for signaling, heat and food during real-world survival situations. To become a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist, one must know how to create a fire in many different types of weather conditions.

Losing this fight is something not many imagine, but keeping death in mind is key, Reab explained.

“Death is something people don’t like to think about. You don’t like to think, ‘Hey, if I don’t do things right, I might die out here,’ but that’s exactly how you have to think,” said Reab, who grew up in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. “If you don’t take care of yourself and meet your basic needs, you’re going to die. What are you going to do to make it through the night?”

The thought of losing this fight is not an option for Staff Sgt. Joseph Riemer, an explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron at Eielson AFB.

“If I can’t survive in these elements, I won’t be able to do my job,” Riemer said. Considering his job is to disarm explosives, lives depend on Riemer being able to properly perform his mission.

Not long ago, Riemer, along with his fellow EOD Airmen, had to disarm a homemade improvised explosive device in a northern Alaska village. Reimer’s unit responds to all IEDs in Alaska, north of the 65 parallel.

Riemer’s team was dropped off and had to survive on their own, with very little help.

“In these conditions, we can’t always use our robot to take care of an ordnance,” he said, noting how the extreme cold can destroy their electronic equipment. “Something like frostbite on my hands could be a game changer. Even just knowing how to make a fire from nothing will help.”

With the average January temperature for nearby Fairbanks being about minus 17, frostbite will form in roughly 15 minutes and can bring grown men to their knees, Reab said.

That extreme cold was something Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Brewer, an HC-130 navigator from Land O’ Lakes, Fla., never experienced until he participated in the course.

U.S Coast Guard Lt. Chris Breuer, MH-65 Dolphin pilot, Kodiak Air Station, assembles a make-shift cup handle during arctic survival school. The training challenged students to improvise and meet the needs of survival in arctic temperatures.

U.S Coast Guard Lt. Chris Breuer, MH-65 Dolphin pilot, Kodiak Air Station, assembles a make-shift cup handle during arctic survival school. The training challenged students to improvise and meet the needs of survival in arctic temperatures.

“Honestly, this sort of environment isn’t something I’m used to, which is why I wanted to attend the course,” said Brewer, who spent 29 years in Florida, including six years of Coast Guard assignments, and is now stationed in Kodiak, Alaska.

For Brewer, mental toughness played an integral role in passing two nights and three days living outside in the extreme cold.

Though this training wasn’t life or death, Brewer chose to treat it as a high stakes game. The only thing on his mind was survival.

“If I need to use this training, chances are it would be a situation where I either survive or I don’t,” Brewer said. “This was like a fight. I won this round. I hope I’d win the next. Not coming home to my family is not an option for me. Mother Nature won’t beat me.”

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‘Cool School’

Surviving in the wilderness could be intimidating for some, but doing so during a brutal Alaskan winter could be downright scary.

Detachment 1, 66th Training Squadron’s Arctic Survival Training course, which began here recently, offers students a set of skills invaluable to enduring the subarctic climate of interior Alaska and the extreme cold.

The “Cool School” is a week-long course providing students lessons to better implement survival, evasion, resistance and escape principles as well as familiarity with the environment, said Staff Sgt. Mark Dornford, a Det. 1, 66th TRS SERE specialist. The course primarily caters to aircrew members who may find themselves in a survival situation.

In comparison to other survival courses, what makes the class unique is its arctic setting, forcing students to endure plummeting temperatures during the dark, cold interior-Alaskan winter.

“The biggest challenge is overcoming the (extreme) cold,” Dornford said. “A lot of our students already have basic survival skills. This course takes that extra step by adapting it to cold weather.”

Before students step into the field to test their newfound survival skills, they must receive proper instruction. The course is divided into two days of classroom instruction and three days in the field to give students ample time to apply what they have learned.

“One of the biggest take-aways from the course is people see how anyone can survive when it’s minus 50; it can be done,” Dornford said. “The biggest eye-opener is probably when they spend the night [in the field] waking up in 50 or 40 below still alive and still able to meet their needs. They realize they can do it.”

There are five of those basic needs: health, personal protection – clothing, shelter, fire and equipment – sustenance, signaling and communication, and travel.

“(The course) lets you know you can do a whole lot with a little,” said Tech. Sgt. Marcos Gonzalez, 354th Comptroller Squadron NCO in charge of commander support staff and a unit deployment manager. “After going through the course, it made me realize that I could still meet my needs and do work.”

The course also teaches the student the importance of recognizing the potential outcome of each decision made, especially in subzero temperatures, Gonzalez said.

In addition to building confidence in meeting the five basic needs, students must overcome mental barriers, choosing to trust the materials separating them from the winter elements, ultimately helping keep them warm and dry. From socks to skullcaps and each layer in between, individuals realize the importance of their clothing in surviving extreme temperatures.

However, “[students] do not really believe their gear is going to be enough until they see it [in action], and then it begins to click,” Dornford said.
The survival skills taught here are applicable to just about anyone, especially in areas with extreme winter weather conditions, according to officials. Unfortunately, every Airman may not be able to attend this or a similar course.

However, basic knowledge of what to do in an emergency situation could make a difference when it comes to surviving the elements, according to officials. People who live and work in areas with extreme winter weather conditions should keep cold weather items close. A cold weather sleeping bag, fire starting materials, road flares, headlamp or flashlight, metal container for melting snow and high energy foods are just a few things that can help when faced with a survival situation.

For more winter weather safety tips, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric winter safety page at www.nws.noaa.gov/om/winter/index.shtml.