Air Force cadets design and build new bridge on Two Elk Trail
11 Air Force Academy cadets, all senior civil engineering majors, are completing construction on a bridge that they have spent the year designing as part of a unique course offering
A brand new bridge is going up on the east side of the Two Elk Trail that has been designed and constructed entirely by college seniors at the Air Force Academy.
Last fall, 11 Air Force Academy cadets, all seniors in the Civil Engineering program, were accepted into an elective class called “Civil Engineering 376 — Forest Service Bridge Design.” The class was created in 2016 through a collaboration between Dr. Stan Rader, a professor of civil engineering at the Air Force Academy, and Gregory Rosenmerkel, the engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer of the U.S. Forest Service and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.
“This unique program allows our future Air Force engineers and leaders to take a full-scale civil engineering project from cradle to grave, while providing the public with a valuable infrastructure asset that will serve for decades into the future,” Rader said.
Building bridges in the White River National Forest
The Two Elk Trail bridge is the third engineering project that cadets have constructed 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 Wilderness, and in 2018 cadets built a bridge on the McCullough Gulch Trail south of Breckenridge.
Rosenmerkel is an alumnus of the Air Force Academy’s Civil Engineering program, and was a student of Rader’s back in college. The idea for the course came when he reunited with his former professor on a campus visit, and saw an opportunity for his alma mater to partner with the Forest Service.
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”I realized this could be something really special,” Rosenmerkel said. “It offers academic requirements and possibilities for them, the Forest Service gets a great benefit from it, and the public that we are both here to serve get a bridge for the next 50 years that we would never get otherwise.”
There are a number of sites across the White River National Forest where infrastructure is aged and primed for replacement, but the budget of the Forest Service is stretched too thin to address all of these needs. The Two Elk Trail bridge is made of steel and timber and spans about 50 feet long. A comparable bridge of this magnitude would typically cost taxpayers around $250,000, but by turning it into an educational project, the Forest Service only spent around $60,000 to cover materials.
“We pay less than half of what it would cost to do this through contract work,” Rosenmerkel said. “To get an engineering design done is expensive work. Instead, these cadets design the bridge on their own, and they get something out of it, and all I do is buy the materials.”
A year of designing and planning
The project began last summer, when students came out to the site to do a topographic survey, take soil samples for geotechnical design of the footers, and survey the stream flow and banks. They designed the bridge during class in the fall semester, and then spent this past spring semester ordering materials and planning out their construction schedule.
The cadets arrived in Vail on July 12 to start the three-week process of turning their plans into reality. Thanks to a grant from ARDI, a foundation that provides funding to support academic excellence at the U.S. Air Force Academy, all 11 students were provided with free room and board in Vail throughout their stay.
On the construction site, each of the students has been given ownership over a different aspect of the bridge’s construction, dividing up responsibilities in typical military fashion.
Benjamin Kuhn, 21, was voted into the role of flight commander, and is responsible for overseeing the project as a whole and making procedural decisions alongside Rader.
“It’s been cool to see them use my ideas,” Kuhn said. “They let me have my input, and I actually have a say in every decision.”
Rader confirmed that this project is entirely in the hands of the students, and his role is simply to sign off on the plans.
“I have never had a failure on the cadet’s part,” Rader said. “I run the first meeting when we arrive, and gradually step out, so right now Ben is doing all of that, taking the lead and planning the schedule, figuring out how to do stuff, and I just give him the green light.”
Facing real-world challenges
One of the unique educational benefits of the course is that it forces the students to grapple with the on-the-ground challenges of implementing their designs. Most of the academic projects that the students engage with in school are on a very large scale, so they never get to see what the execution of their plan actually looks like.
Towards the start of construction, the students realized that one of the materials was delivered with the wrong bolt holes drilled into them.
“One of the cadets asked me, ‘Sir, how often does something like this usually happen?’ and I responded ‘Oh, every single time’,” Rosenmerkel said. “That is your job. That is why you are here as an engineer and an officer, to analyze the problem, get some input, look at some alternatives and decide how we move forward.”
Brooke Martin, 21, is the cadet in charge of public affairs on the team.
“It gave me that real-world perspective of how you can design something, but it’s not always going to be perfect,” Martin said. “Especially working in nature, in a place like this, you can’t predict some of the natural features, like where some very inconvenient rocks are going to be or how the stream is going to go. I think working in those real-world constraints gives us an edge on other people who have just taken academic classes and don’t know how things happen in the field.”
“It’s a great lesson, because in the Air Force if you put something on paper and they come to you and say it doesn’t work, that’s normal,” Kuhn agreed. “It happens a lot, and we’re learning to adapt and overcome.”
The cadets have one more week to complete the construction of the bridge, and they will celebrate their accomplishment with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday, July 30.
The White River National Forest can also look forward to many more student-constructed bridges in the future, because as of this year, the Forest Service Bridge Design course has been officially incorporated into the civil engineering course load at the Air Force Academy. The plan is to complete one project every two years, and Rader and Rosenmerkel are already scouting locations for the next cohort of cadets to tackle in 2023.
“This is the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done academically, but we’ve finally got it done, and it’s set up to go forward,” Rader said.
Rader has received nothing but positive feedback from alumni of the course. Out of a scale of 10, it currently boasts a student rating of 9.3.
“That means that everyone rated it as either a 9 or a 10,” Rader said with a smile. “It’s the highlight of what I do.”