Engineering cadets hit the road

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
When you absolutely, positively need something blown up overnight, you call the U.S. Air Force. And when you need an airfield built by Tuesday, you call Air Force civil engineers.

The Air Force Academy's Field Engineering Readiness Laboratory prepares cadets majoring in civil and bioenvironmental engineering for a scenario they will probably face at some point in their careers: traveling to an austere location to build an air base from the ground up.

Cadets spend three weeks during a summer session in their junior year to learn skills such as surveying, building concrete beams and wood structures and mixing concrete and asphalt.

Most FERL activities take place in Jacks Valley on the Academy's north side. However, to learn about mixing asphalt and concrete, cadets travel south: to Rocky Mountain Materials and Asphalt, a local company established in 1977.

"The plant is really clean, very safety-conscious," said Dr. Karen Henry, an associate professor for the Academy's Civil Engineering Department and its Geotechnical Division director. "They're very gracious hosts and incredibly knowledgeable."

What cadets learn on the field trip applies to many of their senior-level engineering courses, Dr. Henry said. Tour guides discuss customizing asphalt mixes to balance durability and stability and the balance between quick-setting and durable concrete. For example, concrete's normal curing time is 56 days, but shortening agents can reduce that to as little as 48 hours; the downside is that the concrete may last only 10 years instead of 40.

Dr. Henry said that for her, the highlight of teaching CE is being part of cadets' intellectual development.

"I get to teach courses in subjects I really like, so being able to share my enthusiasm ... what a great way to earn a living," she said.

For cadets, one of CE's big draws is how easily it applies to jobs both in the Air Force and the civilian market, said Cadet 2nd Class Clayton Elliott, who is assigned to Cadet Squadron 25.

"I'm planning to fly, but I'll probably do CE after I get out of the Air Force," he added.