Air Force Cadets Design and Build New Bridge on Two Elk Trail
A brand new bridge rises on the east side of the Two Elk Trail, which was completely designed and built by college graduates of the Air Force Academy.
Last fall, 11 Air Force Academy cadets, all seniors in the Civil Engineering program, were accepted into an elective class titled “Civil Engineering 376 – Forest Service Bridge Design”. The class was created in 2016 through a collaboration between Dr Stan Rader, professor of civil engineering at the Air Force Academy, and Gregory Rosenmerkel, the staff officer of engineering, minerals and US Forest Service fleet and a retired US Air Force colonel. .
“This unique program enables our future engineers and Air Force leaders to lead a large-scale cradle-to-grave civil engineering project, while providing the public with a valuable infrastructure asset that will serve for decades,” Rader said.
Building bridges in the White River National Forest
The Two Elk Trail Bridge is the third engineering project cadets have built in the White River National Forest in recent years. In 2016, a previous class installed a new bridge on the Maroon Creek Trail in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Desert, and in 2018, cadets built a bridge on the McCullough Gulch Trail south of Breckenridge.
Rosenmerkel is an alumnus of the Air Force Academy Civil Engineering program and was a Rader student in college. The idea for the course came to him when he reunited with his former teacher during a campus visit and saw an opportunity for his alma mater to partner with the Forest Service.
“I realized that this could be something really special,” Rosenmerkel said. “It provides them with academic demands and opportunities, the Forest Service takes great advantage of it, and the public that we both are here to serve is getting a bridge to the next 50 years that we would never have had otherwise.”
There are a number of sites in the White River National Forest where the infrastructure is old and ready for replacement, but the Forest Service budget is too small to meet all of these needs. The Two Elk Trail Bridge is made of steel and wood and is approximately 50 feet long. A comparable bridge of this magnitude would typically cost taxpayers about $ 250,000, but by turning it into an educational project, the Forest Service only spent about $ 60,000 to cover materials.
“We are paying less than half of what it would cost to do this through contract work,” Rosenmerkel said. “Carrying out an engineering design is expensive work. Instead, these cadets design the bridge themselves, and they get something out of it, and all I do is buy the materials.
A year of design and planning
The project began last summer, when students came to the site to do a topographic survey, take soil samples for geotechnical design of footers, and study stream flow and banks. They designed the bridge during fall semester classes, then spent last spring semester ordering materials and planning their construction schedule.
The cadets arrived in Vail on July 12 to begin the three-week process of making their plans a reality. Thanks to a grant from ARDI, a foundation that provides funds to support academic excellence at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the 11 students were accommodated and fed free at Vail throughout their stay.
On the construction site, each of the students was given responsibility for a different aspect of the construction of the bridge, distributing the responsibilities in a typically military manner.
Benjamin Kuhn, 21, was elected as the captain and is responsible for overseeing the project as a whole and making procedural decisions alongside Rader.
“It’s cool to see them use my ideas,” Kuhn said. “They gave me my opinion and I have a say in every decision.”
Rader confirmed that this project is entirely in the hands of the students and that his role is simply to validate the plans.
“I never had a failure from the caddy,” Rader said. “I run the first meeting when we get in and gradually get out, so right now Ben is doing all of that, taking the lead and planning the schedule, figuring out how to do it, and just giving him the green light. “
Face the challenges of the real world
One of the unique educational benefits of the course is that it forces students to take on the on-the-ground challenges of implementing their designs. Most of the academic projects that students engage in in school are on a very large scale, so that they never see what the execution of their plan looks like.
Towards the start of construction, the students realized that one of the materials had been delivered with the wrong bolt holes drilled.
“One of the cadets asked me, ‘Sir, how often does something like this usually happen?’ and I said ‘Oh, every time’, ”Rosenmerkel said. “It’s your job. That’s why you’re here as an engineer and an officer, to analyze the problem, get information, look for alternatives, and decide how we go forward.
Brooke Martin, 21, is the youngest in charge of the team’s public affairs.
“It gave me that real-world perspective on how you can design something, but it’s not always going to be perfect,” Martin said. “Especially when working in nature, in a place like this, you can’t predict some of the natural features, like where some really troublesome rocks are going to be or how the stream is going to go. real world gives us an advantage over other people who just took college courses and don’t know how things are in the field.
“That’s a great lesson, because in the Air Force, if you put something on paper and they come to you and tell you it’s not working, that’s okay,” Kuhn agreed. “It happens a lot, and we learn to adapt and overcome. “
Cadets still have one week to complete construction of the bridge, and they will celebrate their accomplishment with a groundbreaking ceremony on Friday, July 30.
The White River National Forest can also look forward to many more student-built bridges in the future, as starting this year, the Forest Service Bridge Design course has been officially incorporated into the Civil Engineering course load. of the Air Force Academy. The plan is to complete a project every two years, and Rader and Rosenmerkel are already researching locations for the next cohort of cadets to face in 2023.
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done academically, but we’ve finally done it, and it’s set up to move forward,” Rader said.
Rader received only positive feedback from alumni of the course. On a scale of 10, he currently has a student rating of 9.3.
“That means everyone rated him as a 9 or a 10,” Rader said with a smile. “This is the highlight of what I do.