Air Force engineers trek Montana mountain to service radio communications generator

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Breanna Christopher Volkmar
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

The engine of an all-terrain vehicle hummed steadily as four Airmen drove up a secluded dirt road, leaving a thick haze of dust behind them. Tires gripped the rocky path lined with purple flowers, and the warm Montana air turned into a piercing wind on the traveler’s faces as they climbed higher and higher in the Highwood Mountains. 

Located more than 7,000 feet up at the peak of Highwood Baldy, and with only one road of access, is a key radio repeater site for enterprise land mobile radio communications. 

Airmen from the 341st Civil Engineer Squadron made the mountainous trek on July 18, 2023, to perform monthly generator maintenance and heating ventilation and air conditioning maintenance at the site in preparation for the upcoming winter months.

“It’s not often when you talk to other power pro troops from other bases that they have generators on top of mountains,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Van Oss, an electrical power production craftsman assigned to the 341st CES.

The communication system is a vital resource for some of Malmstrom Air Force Base’s missile alert facilities, allowing radio communications at further distances. 

Montana agencies such as the Department of Transportation, Department of Montana Natural Resources and Montana State Police operate their communication system out of the same building and rely upon the 341st CES’ upkeep to maintain their state operations.

With Montana’s snowfall season usually beginning in October and lasting through May, the 341st CES has a short window to conduct preventative maintenance in a safer, more conducive environment. 

“The drive up [the mountain] is treacherous,” said Van Oss. “It serves a risk of potentially getting stuck, or even sliding off the [road]. On the way down you must be careful in case brakes fail on the vehicle you’re driving.”

To ensure that the generator is ready for the winter months, Airmen from the 341st CES perform a monthly run of the generator. The monthly service includes allowing the system to run for an hour as well as inspecting the automatic transfer switch, ensuring that the system will work in the event of a power outage.

Van Oss also mentioned that right before winter arrives, the generator’s oil, coolant, filters and other fluids are changed. 

“If commercial power fails, we need to ensure that our generator is going to start each and every time,” said Van Oss.

Without a functioning generator in the event of a power outage, Malmstrom AFB would lose crucial land mobile radio communications with Airmen conducting training or daily operations within the radius of the communications system's reach. 

Because the road to Highwood Baldy’s peak is impassible during the winter, the 341st CES must work with the 341st Communications Squadron and the 40th Helicopter Squadron in the case of a power outage to fly out and service the generator.

This makes their summer efforts critical to ensure the generator will always start in the winter.

“Although it’s rare that our generator doesn’t start, in the event of an outage, we do have steps to take to get the generator back up so the mission can continue,” said Van Oss.

By far, the biggest challenge for the teams when making a trip up the mountain is weather. Even during warmer months, the base of the mountain may be a sunny 65 degrees while the peak is 30 degrees and under three feet of snow.

Despite the challenges they face, the 341st CES remains constant in their support to guarantee the 341st Missile Wing’s deterrence mission continues without pause.

“Without the 341st CES as a whole, the nuclear command, control and communications mission [at Malmstrom] would not be sustainable,” said Van Oss.