Within seconds of exposure to the North Dakota cold, painful things begin happening to unprotected skin. The nose and lips begin to tingle before numbness sets in. Throw in the brutal Midwest wind on top of sub-zero temperatures with ice and snow-covered roads and sidewalks, and accomplishing the mission while keeping Airmen safe becomes serious business at both Grand Forks and Minot Air Force Base in the Peace Garden State.
Andy Swenson, the 319th Air Base Wing safety manager at Grand Forks AFB, thought of the 264 Critical Days of Winter as his answer to the Air Force’s 101 Critical Days of Summer after he arrived on base 11 winters ago.
“If you’ve ever been off base at a deployed location, you know you’re the odd man out there, and you feel like you’re the target, and your awareness is naturally heightened because of it,” Swenson said. “Well, up here, I think everyone understands that the winter is really the bad guy, and we can’t afford to ever lose sight of that. But those of us who work inside and occasionally go outside have it easy. It’s the cop at the front gate and the civil engineer going from building to building who have it hard.”
Grand Forks AFB leaders call their Airmen the “Warriors of the North,” while Minot AFB commanders call their people “Tundra Warriors.”
The missions are different, but both North Dakota bases recognize a different type of war their people must fight more than half of the year – a war against some of the most extreme winter conditions in the nation, which can often last from October, when the land becomes a sea of white after the first snowfall, until May and sometimes early June, when spring finally arrives in North Dakota.
“As Warriors of the North, we take great pride in getting the mission done despite the harsh conditions,” said Col. Paul E. Bauman, the 319th ABW commander at Grand Forks AFB. “Our Airmen are our greatest asset and ensuring their safety in this climate is a top priority. I am extremely proud of the way our Airmen adapt and innovate to accomplish our mission each and every day. I am honored to lead such remarkable men and women.”
At Grand Forks AFB, Airmen 1st Class Julio Duran-Sangabriel and Dylan Harrison, 319th Civil Engineer Squadron pavements and equipment technicians, clear snow from the flightline to keep the RQ-4 Global Hawk ready to fly. Members of the 319th Security Forces Squadron check identifications at the base gates, search vehicles and conduct perimeter checks, along with supporting Cavalier Air Force Station an hour and a half away.
Across the base, Staff Sgt. Victoria Dames, a 319th SFS military working dog handler, showed off the “dog booties” used to protect MWD Arco to keep his paws from being cut by ice and hardened snow. One night, during his first month after arriving at Grand Forks from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana last winter, Capt. Kendall Benton, the 319th SFS operations officer, spent more than four hours rescuing motorists who had slid into the ditch on an icy Highway 2, between the city of Grand Forks and his home in Larimore.
About 200 miles west at Minot AFB, 94th Missile Maintenance Squadron members fight the elements to keep satellite and land-based communications available for crews working underground at missile sites. Members of the 91st Maintenance Operations Squadron often have to shovel their way just to get to missile sites to do their work a couple of hours from Minot AFB. When winter settles in at Minot, the maintainers sometimes leave the base in morning darkness, and by the time they return about eight hours later, it’s already dark again, the end of another one of North Dakota’s short winter days.
Airman 1st Class Joseph Ryan Houseman, a 5th Security Forces Squadron response force member and installation entry controller, tries to keep warm in his Humvee. His upper body is warm enough, but a bottle of water is frozen in the floorboard because the vehicle doesn’t have ground heaters. At the gate, 5th SFS members rotate each hour, but when the temperature drops to minus 40, they have to switch every five minutes. They can only stay so warm, even wearing a parka, hat, mask, thick gloves, thermal underwear and two layers of socks.
“They say our main mission in security forces is to provide uncompromised security for America’s strategic forces,” Houseman said. “That’s what we do, and we try not to let the weather bother us.”
Across base, the B-52 Stratofortresses sit on a flightline usually covered by snow for much of the winter. Maintainers in the 5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron perform heavy maintenance, such as brake and tire changes on the B-52, taking advantage of work and rest cycles to help each other avoid frostbite and hypothermia. Breaks are encouraged because of the conditions on the flightline. When the conditions reach a certain point, as they did when the base faced minus 45 wind chill temperatures throughout a two-week period in February 2014, maintenance has to be temporarily shut down. Jobs that normally take six hours to complete in warmer weather take twice that time during the winter, said Senior Airman Dylan Walls, the 5th AMS aircraft assistant dedicated crew chief.
“During a normal duty day, we’re looking at six hours to be out in the cold, performing our job,” Walls said. “If the mission requires us to stay outside longer than that in order to get our planes ready to be fully mission capable, we do it. We have work and rest cycles, depending on the cold and its severity, and we try to adhere to that as best as we can, but we also have to continually work on the aircraft.”
While the missions are quite different, with Minot AFB remaining focused on the B-52, and the Global Hawk now the mission at Grand Forks AFB, both bases rely heavily on cold-weather clothing and the wingman concept to protect their Airmen during the harsh North Dakota winters.
Civil engineers keep the flightline cleared of snow, which can be especially challenging after a heavy snowstorm, like the blizzards that usually hammer the state each winter. The squadron is manned 24/7 from the first week of November through early April, with the addition of 15 extra winter overhire civilian employees, said Greg Stoik, the 319th CES horizontal section construction foreman.
“We are maintaining an active runway here, and we have to keep it as such,” Stoik said. “It has to be open at all times, and our mission is to keep the runway and taxiways open so when the Global Hawk and (unmanned aerial vehicles) are prepared, they can go.”
No matter what the conditions are, there are some jobs that have to be done regardless. Civil engineers and security forces members at both bases are some of the Airmen who don’t have the luxury of staying in their dorm rooms and homes when the North Dakota winter deals its worst to the area.
“The most important thing about security forces is our job doesn’t stop on account of the weather,” Benton said. “We do the exact same job regardless of the weather conditions because we have to. We don’t have a choice. But to mitigate that, we do our extra training – peer and leaders at all levels, we make sure people are dressing and layering appropriately for the cold.”
Just because the state enjoyed a considerably more temperate winter this year, Airmen at Grand Forks and Minot know better than to be complacent.