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The silver lining behind the cold flightline

Planes must come and go despite the temperature

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachael Garneau

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Eight months of the year, Washington state residents see temperatures drop down to the 40's or lower. For people with outdoor jobs, like crew chiefs on McChord Field, the cold weather is definitely a factor in their day-to-day life.

Since the beginning of 2013, the temperature on McChord Field has been as low as 19 degrees Farenheit. For maintainers on the flightline, this means bundling up in a lot of layers, which can prove problematic in accomplishing the mission of preparing the base's C-17's for takeoff.

The 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron has 143 crew chiefs who are issued all-purpose gloves as part of their job.

"I prefer not to wear gloves, I like to really get a tactile grip on my tools," said Tech. Sgt. Kevin Hawes, a crew chief with the 446th AMXS Blue Aircraft Maintenance Unit. "Sometimes you have to (wear gloves), especially if you're standing around waiting on the flightline. The guy standing out front of the aircraft with the chalks? That's a cold job."

Hawes says he's seen a lot of cold days as a crew chief. Part of the mission with the 446th Airlift Wing entails flying in support of Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica. The coldest day there for Hawes was -65 F.

"I prefer the cold because you can get warm more easily than you can get cool," said Hawes. "I mean, the planes have air conditioners, but we don't use them. We can turn the heat on pretty easily."

According to the Mayo Clinic, you can experience frostbite in your extremities anytime the temperature dips below freezing, or 32 F.

"The weather is definitely a challenge when it comes to being a crew chief," said Tech. Sgt. Henry Bande, a crew chief with the 446th AMXS Silver AMU. "Working and picking up tools, the weather definitely affects your hands. They get numb. And, if you don't wear gloves, your hands get freezing within a couple of minutes."

The 446th AW Safety Office says when you are exposed to cold weather, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Extended exposure to cold will ultimately use up your body's stored energy. The result is hypothermia which affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly.

"This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won't be able to do anything about it," said Master Sgt. Bruce Perkins from the 446th AW Safety Office. "Hypothermia happens most often at very cold temperatures, but it can occur even at cool temperatures if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water."

The 446th AMXS hasn't seen any cold weather-related injuries in the past year, but supervisors tell their Airmen to use common sense when it comes to being out in the cold.

"You just need to be aware of the temperatures," said Bande. "Dress for the weather. Wear layers and keep your Gore-Tex parka in your car just in case. That way, if you get warm, you can shed some clothing to get more comfortable. Be aware of the dangers. Take breaks, use the heaters the Air Force provides, or go inside the airplane to warm up. Move your fingers to make sure you still have movement and feeling."

If you don't have a job that takes you outside, remember the Reservists who are out in the cold weather every day, making sure the mission gets done.

Hawes and Bande both said they wouldn't trade being a crew chief for anything.

"There's no desk," said Hawes. "You're outside in the elements all day long. But, Mount Rainier makes it the best office in the world."

Photo: Airman Dylan Johnson, a crew chief with the 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, blows warm air into his hands Jan. 3, a day with a low of 19 degrees Farenheit, on McChord Field. Maintainers like Johnson have to find creative ways to stay warm in the winter months while working out on the flightline.

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