CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — When any of Cannon’s aircraft leave base, members of the 27th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron cryogenics team make sure that, should anything go wrong, the pilots and crew can breathe easy, literally.
“We provide aircrews and pilots the air they need to perform the mission,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Duarte, 27 SOLRS non-commissioned officer in charge of fuels facilities and the cryogenics team lead. “We’re the ones that take it off the trucks, test it, fill the other tanks, and get it out to our aircraft. We are working 24/7 to ensure the mission gets done.”
The cryogenics team provide the liquid oxygen that fills Cannon aircraft’s respiratory support systems. When an aircraft goes to high altitudes or is in a perilous situation, the pilots and crew can trust that the supply of air they breathe will continue to fill their lungs with pure oxygen.
“We understand the importance of our career,” Duarte said. “It goes from our tanks to the aircraft to provide aircrews and pilots breathable oxygen. The backup air acts as a failsafe. We’re the ones stopping our guys from getting things like hypoxia.”
Cabin pressurization is necessary at altitudes of 10,000 feet or more to protect from altitude sickness, and ultimately, hypoxia – the result of insufficient levels of oxygen in the blood or tissue. Altitude sickness caused by lower oxygen levels in the brain causes dizziness, shortness of breath and mental confusion, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine.
“We need the liquid oxygen to perform our mission,” said 1st Lt. Andrew Kiel, a 16th Special Operations Squadron AC-130W co-pilot. “When we’re in the sky, our aircraft is not pressurized so that our gun can fire. Without the liquid oxygen systems, we would be getting hypoxia and not be able to provide our air power.”
Liquid oxygen is stored at around minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA. The cryogenics team unload trucks carrying the liquid while collecting samples to make sure it does not contain any contaminants and maintains 99.5% purity by collecting samples directly. Whether in sleet, snow, or scorching heat, they must wear the proper protective gear while handling the oxygen.
“The protective gear we wear isn’t just for us,” said Airman 1st Class Daniel Sage, 27 SOLRS fuels facilities technician and member of the cryogenics team. “Doing cryo is a secondary duty for us, so after we get done handling fuel we go out and fill up the tanks. While we are trying to be safe, we have to make sure the air we’re giving people is pure. If we find there is contaminates, we empty out our tank and start from the beginning. Whether it is in shipment, something gets in or the tank has a leak, a lot can go wrong with oxygen and it’s our job to make sure we provide the best.”
For every aircraft providing air power in any location, there is also a team of cryogenic technicians providing their expertise. Whether at home or down range, they handle hazardous chemicals to make sure that the aircraft they load up can carry out the mission.
“We put planes in the air,” Sage said. “Knowing that what we do is something that can change an aircraft from going down to being able to complete its mission is gratifying. Even if it’s just there as a safety net, we’re here to make sure our aircraft get in the sky.”