YELLOWKNIFE, Canada --
The arrival to the Northwest Territories of 30 Oregon Air National Guard Civil Engineers, delivered a diverse range of maintenance skill sets to complete repairs and construction assignments during a Deployment for Training (DFT) July 16 to 29, 2017.
The airmen from the 142nd Fighter Wing Civil Engineer Squadron (CES) were joined in Yellowknife by a dozen proficient Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Construction Engineers deploying from 4 Wing, Cold Lake, Alberta, as the two units integrated on a variety of projects that encompassed both military facilities and two large civic projects in the city.
“We meet regularly with the City of Yellowknife and federal departments, and the city asked us how could DND (Department of National Defense) contribute to the city,” explained Canadian Armed Forces Maj. Josh Van Tine.
As a Construction Engineer officer assigned since last August in Yellowknife, part of Van Tine’s efforts involves coordinating activities with the Joint Task Force North (JTFN) Headquarters in the area ‘North of 60’ (north of 60-degree latitude).
“In the past, troop labor-based projects have been beneficial to the community, so when this DFT was identified, the city showed us projects that fit the criteria, and the 142nd met those needs with their skill specifications,” said Van Tine.
Taking a tour of all the projects soon after arrival, the CAF and CES airmen were broken into teams based on trade skills. Plumbers were assigned to bathroom upgrades, heavy equipment operators tackled the Niven Lake Trail, electricians began installing new emergency lighting at the JTFN Headquarters as well new hangar fixtures at the 440th Squadron/Escadrille, and structures tradesmen supported multiple projects at three different sites around the city.
The benefits of having U.S. and Canadian troops working together are not only cost effective for DFT assignments but also factor into strengthening the bi-national mission of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).
“We work together overseas, so it only makes sense we work together on projects in our own counties, and it prepares everyone for overseas deployments,” said Van Tine, describing the impact of the combined joint force approach.
“There just is no substitute for troop labor; you can get a contractor to do some of these projects, but the expertise, professionalism and pride in work really comes through with military journeymen and craftsmen,” he said.
“You [Civil Engineers] don’t have profit as a bottom line; you guys have pride in your work.”
Building that sense of pride and accomplishment is a core element for DFT missions. The 142nd CES had not deployed together since its last expedition to Magnolia, Romania, in 2015, where they undertook restoration work on a medical treatment center.
“These DFT trips are important on several fronts,” explained Master Sgt. Ken Safe, 142nd Fighter Wing CES Operational Superintendent. “This is how we train, recruit and retain our members, because the team building during these trips allows us to get the job done downrange in the future.”
Beginning in January of this year, Safe, along with Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Eckert, conducted a site visit to the area, sizing up the projects, materials, and manpower capacities needed to complete the two-week endeavor.
“We had a couple of CONUS (Contiguous United States) projects available to us, one in California and elsewhere, but we decided that coming to Yellowknife would allow us to build on the coattails from the Wing’s [Operational Group] deployment here a few months before,” Safe said.
The Yellowknife DFT allowed the 142nd CES to bring a full-range of professional trades. Since all the airmen have security clearances, they could work on a variety of projects at the JTFN Headquarters, including a full range of lighting repairs and upgrades, along with installing a new air conditioner unit, a building fuel tank and upgrades in the officer’s mess.
A second group of electricians took on two lighting projects at the 440th Squadron/Escadrille hangar. Upgrading the lighting in the main hangar allowed for more energy- efficient fixtures to be added and the unit’s flagpole to illuminate the Canadian and Royal Air Force Flags continuously.
For working in the PAB (Personnel Accommodations Building), plumbers and carpenters had to retrofit a dozen showers units, often scheduling them around the staff’s daily use of the bathrooms and other facilities.
“Finding the right balance of tradesmen is always the most difficult part when you need 30 members on these deployments,” Safe elaborated. “We never really know how long one project will take, or if we’ll have enough of one trade skill set or if all the supplies show up on time; everything has to come together in a two-week window.”
Yet one of the most challenging projects during the DFT was the Niven Lake Trail extension, where connecting two cutoff trails’ ends had to be tied together to complete the pathway. The project required heavy equipment operators to work long hours, forming areas into the marsh, to create a user-friendlier route around larger rock formations.
After scouting the location, Chief Eckert estimated the trail would be around 600 to 800 feet in distance, but the terrain had hidden challenges. During the construction, trees needed to be cleared and extra materials were needed to fill the marsh, increasing the width and length of the trail when finished.
“It took almost the entire two-weeks to complete and was slightly over 1,000 feet in distance,” he said. “The biggest challenge was working with the size of equipment, and the further you go down the trail with materials, the distance also increases per trip.”
Adjustment took place as the pathway moved forward. Trees were cut and hauled away by CAF and CES airmen, while the route was slightly extended to keep the elevation consistent.
With over 22 years of experience as a heavy equipment operator, Eckert saved his praise for this project’s success on Senior Airman Andrew Wolf and Staff Sgt. Daniel Hagemier.
“I am really proud of those two guys; they worked long days and were so motivated to not only finish this trail for the community, but also do it right,” Eckert said. “For me, this is probably my eighth and most likely final DFT; it was a blast!”
On the last day of the deployment, the tired but content crew gathered for dinner and for accolades from local leadership at the PAB. Joining them was Yellowknife Mayor Mark Heyck.
“The Niven Lake Trail is a very proud part of the overall trail system in Yellowknife,” Heyck emphasized to the city’s desired outcome with the extension. “Accessibility is a high priority for the citizens of ours who may have trouble getting around on the conventional trail system.”
“We are very grateful for the contribution that you made in our community, and for the continued service you have given back to your country and other countries around the world.”