Cadets turn theory into practice in field engineering lab

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Cadets have been working in the hot sun, using their hands to put their engineering expertise into practice.

More than 50 junior cadets from the Academy, four from the Naval Academy and five from the U.S. Military Academy started their three-week Field Engineering and Readiness Laboratory training June 3 in Jacks Valley to receive hands-on civil engineering experience by driving equipment, constructing homes, surveying and, pouring concrete and asphalt.

"It is one of our smallest FERL class sizes in several years, so our instructor and mentor-to-student ratio is ... nearly 1-to-1," said FERL Commander Lt. Col. Patrick Suermann. "With a smaller class size and lower budget this year, we returned to a focus on cadet learning."

Suermann said FERL is a five-week sequence. Cadets head to Hurlburt Field, Fla., Hickam AFB, Hawaii, Nellis AFB, Nev., Luke AFB, Ariz., or Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, following finals week to learn about civil engineering and flying operations. He said they began the field portion here June 3 and will end on June 21.

"In a digital age, FERL returns to the roots of engineering and shows cadets that theories are important for engineering calculations but that there is no substitute for hands-on experience," Suermann said. "The cadets get exposure to many of the skills that they will require of their enlisted Airmen once on active duty. They will know how hard it is to get the job done in sweltering heat and the importance of logistics, supplies and a clear plan."

FERL is the second phase of Civil Engineering 351 and has been offered here since 1994. Suermann said he participated in the program as a cadet in 1995 and is now excited to be the commander of it 18 years later.

"Year after year, this is the cadets' favorite course because of the tangible and intangible benefits: exposure to enlisted expertise and leadership, bonding with others in their major, learning about engineering topics in a hands-on way that deepens their learning experience, and learning from other service members about Army and Navy operations and expertise," he said.

Nearly 50 active-duty and Reserve mentors are helping with the program this year, as well as 16 junior reservists here who are training and mentoring the cadets.

"The mentors are one of the most important parts of FERL," said Cadet 1st Class Andrew Munoz, FERL's cadet commander. "They're civil engineers in the operational Air Force who have a wide range of experience. I've tried to emphasize to cadets how much you can learn from this program. I've also tried to emphasize to the cadet staff and mentors to be excited to teach people and share their knowledge. I feel like everyone's been open, helpful and the cadets and mentors have had a good relationship."

Munoz said even as a leader he's been able to learn something new every day.
"The other day I found out what WD-40 is," Munoz said. "It's a mixture of 40 percent diesel and 60 percent water. I had no idea."

During FERL, cadets participated in a deployed civil engineering scenario where they were to simulate being in a deployed environment and create a crater and runway, temporary housing, an air conditioning unit and aircraft resting system.

"That's been the most challenging activity so far," said Cadet 2nd Class Scout Wallace, an electrical engineer major in the program. "It was a lot of work in a short amount of time. It's rewarding to see how much we've accomplished so far and what happens downrange."

FERL cadets are also building two Hogan homes for the Navajo community to be transported to Gallup, N.M., upon completion.

"It's a lot of physical work but is rewarding with all of the progress we've made so far," Wallace said. "Knowing that someone will live in these homes brings me motivation."

Suermann said the site's upgraded shower and shave facility will be completed this summer so that it's fully operational for the program next year. This year's FERL students are helping with the renovations.

"Cadets are creating the concrete slab for the shower units next year," said Cadet 1st Class Andrew Kerber, a FERL leader. "The site physically gets better each year. This year the cadets have been very motivated to get out there and do work. FERL is very beneficial for engineering cadets because it's an opportunity to see things we learn in action."

Munoz said FERL leaders have been referring to this year as one of the best and smoothest FERL events in recent history.

"It's the most valuable, hands-on applicable skill taught to cadets," Munoz said. "I think it's the best summer program offered to cadets."

Wallace said from the mentors he's been able to hear stories about deployments, experience in the field and how much impact officers have on Air Force pilots and staff.

"It's been a really neat program and I'm looking forward to my remaining time here," Wallace said.