Snow team ensures missions don’t freeze when the installation does

  • Published
  • By Caroline Clauson
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio—Months before most Airmen are imagining Wright-Patterson Air Force Base glazed over out their cubicle windows, a select base team is poised and ready to welcome the worst of winter weather. 

The 88th Civil Engineer Group’s Pavements, Equipment and Grounds Section sees itself as behind-the-scenes facilitator for the projects Wright-Patterson AFB is known for, plowing the way to the base’s missions when snow, sleet and ice start piling up.  

“We complete our mission to clear all hazards in the safest, most-efficient means possible so that the personnel of Wright-Patt can complete theirs,” said Harold Honeycutt, the PEG team supervisor.  

In fact, together with the base commander, 88th Air Base Wing Weather Flight, 88th Security Forces Squadron and local authorities, the speed and precision with which the crew estimates it can restore surfaces to safe conditions largely determines whether the installation opens its gates.

Once the Base Weather Station puts out a prediction, PEG enacts an intricate plan tailored to the storm’s details and current base operations, complete with 12-hour personnel “snow mode” shifts, delegated team roles, area priorities and pre-treatment – even before a snowflake hits the ground.  

This year, PEG showed off its preparation early in the biennial Snow Parade, displaying all its equipment on the Area A flightline Oct 14. Ahead of the event, the machines, reconditioned after last winter, receive a final touch-up before modeling their capabilities for base leadership.

“The Snow Parade gives everyone an opportunity to actually see what we do,” said Aime Haas, Area A grounds supervisor. “Sometimes snow might start in the middle of the night, and when people wake up, it’s all gone. Now people get to see who does it and what all is involved.”

Honeycutt noted that there’s an operational motivation behind the event as well.

“It’s not a good idea to wait until you need the equipment to make sure it’s ready,” Honeycutt said. “Bad things can happen.” 

A group of about 65 personnel, the PEG team commissions a fleet of 54 skid-steer loaders, backhoes, farm tractors, rotating brooms, dump trucks and 34-foot-long runway plows with snow-specific attachments to clear hundreds of combined miles of road, sidewalk and airfield. Snowblowers range from sidewalk-width to airfield-size with the capability to clear 5,000 tons of snow an hour.  

Even with PEG’s robust team, severe-winter precipitations rarely signal a cozy day indoors for snow-removal personnel like it does for the rest of WPAFB.

“This can be a dangerous job. Snow-removal personnel are out in the elements during the extreme cold,” Honeycutt said. “They are operating heavy equipment under hazardous road conditions. At some point during our shift, we are either driving to work during a winter storm or driving home in it. After working a 12-hour shift, it could take an additional hour or two to get home because you can only go 25 miles an hour.”

However, knee-deep in miles to clear at odd hours, the crew catches a snowy perspective like no other Airmen.  

“The craziest event I can recall was a massive ice storm in 2005, I believe,” Honeycutt said. “The roads were a disaster, with temperatures too cold for salt to be effective and ice built up so much on tree limbs that they were snapping off the trees everywhere. The streets were littered with tree limbs and impassable in areas. It is the only winter event that I remember being told to stay indoors until it had passed.” 

The team knows how to handle each unique phenomenon where winter meets asphalt, and what some call a basic snowstorm can vary wildly from the next, Honeycutt says.

“One storm with 4 inches of accumulation can be completely different than another storm with accumulations of 4 inches,” he added. “Was it a wet, heavy snow or a light, fluffy snow, or a mix of the two? Each may total the same, but fighting them can be completely different. Ground temperature, subsurface temperature, ambient temperature, wind speed, direction, precipitation before the snow, whether the event takes place during the day or at night – these are just some of the factors to take into account that impact a winter-weather event and how we prepare for and combat it.”

Experience with these unexpected subtleties of cold weather comes practical knowledge of how Airmen can keep their footing outdoors this winter.

“Our advice to everyone is to simply drive safely and heed the road conditions,” Honeycutt said. “Wear proper footwear; sidewalks are one of the last (places) to get cleared, and even once cleared, there may be hidden ice that will remain there until the sun melts it.

“Lastly, be extra careful around snow-removal equipment. When removing snow, we do a lot of backing up on the streets and in parking lots. The visibility on most of our equipment is limited, and we may not see you coming until it’s too late.” 

While the rest of Wright-Patterson AFB sidesteps icy patches or stays inside, Honeycutt is proud of his crew as it prepares to tackle difficult, low-profile challenges in the elements.

It takes someone who is passionate and dedicated about their job to do what they do,” he said, “and that is what we have here at Wright-Patterson: a group of caring, hardworking, dedicated people.”