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Keeping cool under pressure

By Senior Airman C. Todd Lopez

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey (Sept. 25, 2001) -- About 100 yards off the main drag is a nondescript building bearing a sign which stirs the imagination.

"Cryogenic storage," it declares. For the last year or so, news magazines have used photos of test tubes being pulled from icy cryogenic storage vats to hype stories ranging from stem cell research to cloning. Television has shown us bug-eyed aliens cold stored in the basements of clandestine military installations and wealthy eccentrics who froze their heads for posterity.

Senior Airman Marc Colbary, 86th Supply Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, Germany explained there was no such mysterious mission at the Incirlik facility. Just mission-oriented work.

Colbary is deployed here as part of Operation Northern Watch and works at the 39th Supply Squadron's cryogenic storage facility.

The unit provides gasses in both their liquid and natural states to various organizations around the base.

U.S. military aircraft are their biggest customer, of course.

"They use oxygen on the planes. You have to have oxygen there because the pilots breathe that oxygen," explained Colbary.

"Oxygen is stored in a liquid form, because if it is compressed in a liquid form you can transport and store more of it," said Senior Airman Jesse Palacios, 3rd Logistics Support Squadron, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. Palacios is also deployed here as part of ONW.

The unit also stores liquid nitrogen. Aircraft maintenance crews convert the liquid nitrogen back into a gas on the flightline. The properties of the gas make it ideal for filling aircraft tires, struts and landing gear.

The gasses are stored in large, 5,000-gallon tanks. The tanks are actually double-walled to increase their insulating properties, similar to a Thermos bottle. Insulation is important because the liquids tend to turn quickly back to gas.

"It is boiling from the time it is made. We cannot keep it cold enough. From the time it is made, we are losing product," said Senior Airman David Mayer, 39th Supply Squadron.

When frozen, the gasses are about -300 F. This makes working with them fairly dangerous. The extreme cold can cause severe damage to the skin. Squadron members take special precautions to deal with the extremely low temperature as well as to deal with each gas's unique dangers.

"We wear a white suit to cover our uniform because a fuel residue on our uniforms could be a hazard. We wear a rubber apron, a full face shield, and wool gloves with a leather glove over the top," explained Palacios.

Besides the cold, each gas has its own unique dangers. Oxygen is highly reactive. Squadron members are careful to not allow the oxygen to come into contact with any oils or greases can pose asphyxiation problems.

When needed, a gas like liquid nitrogen, also called LN2, is transferred into a service cart, which is then sent to the fightline for crew chiefs to deliver to the aircraft.

For both Colbary and Palacios, ONW is their first deployment and their first time working with a non-training mission. But the change doesn't affect their work.

"This is business as usual," said Palacios. "It is the same thing every day, the same mind set."

"And you always do your job the right way, every single time anyway," added Colbary. "So it doesn't matter what the mission is."