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Class of 2019: Senior cadet reflects on building a bridge with National Forest Service

(National Forest Service photo)

Story by Jennifer Spradlin, May 15, 2019

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Cadet 1st Class Ryan Howe will be the first to admit he didn’t plan on attending the Air Force Academy, but a fateful trip to the mechanical laboratory during Parents’ Weekend piqued his curiosity, and he applied.

Four years later, he is set to graduate and pursue a master’s degree at the University of Washington, and fittingly, one of his standout memories from his time at the Academy is tied to an engineering project – albeit a civil engineering one.

For three weeks last summer, Howe and 12 other cadets from the Class of 2019 partnered with the National Forest Service to build a pedestrian bridge on the McCullough Gulch Trail near Breckenridge, Colorado. The trail is one of the most popular in the Dillon Ranger District; in the peak season, several hundred hikers hit the trail daily.

“I learned it’s much different to theorize and determine your engineering solution on paper than it is to actually build it,” Howe said. “There were unexpected challenges on the build site – for example, the wood wasn’t perfectly straight as we had drawn it in our design. We had to think about the weather and how we would manage the electricity [for our tools].”

In 2015, a decades-old bridge was removed due to safety concerns and temporarily replaced with a metal boat dock ramp on loan from Summit County. The cadets designed and constructed the new bridge to meet flooding level requirements and to support ATVs for emergency/rescue response. The materials they used were also more aesthetically suited to the natural environment.

This the second bridge project cadets from the Academy Civil Engineering department partnered with the NFS to complete. The first bridge was built at the Maroon Bells Scenic Loop near Aspen, Colorado, in 2016. Another project is slated for Elk Ridge Trail in Vale, Colorado, in 2020.

Gregory Rosenmerkel, a 1988 graduate and retired Air Force civil engineer, now a NFS staff officer, has worked with the cadets on both building projects.

“We’re optimistic that this fantastic win-win partnership will continue into future years providing the cadets a great academic and leadership experience while providing an equally great service to the public both institutions are dedicated to serve,” he said.

Rosenmerkel estimates the bridge will last 20 years or more depending on environmental factors.

“At first, I was most excited about the project from an engineering standpoint, but it’s really cool that we could make a lasting, tangible contribution to the area,” Howe said.

Ryan will be the third Academy graduate in his family, joining his father, a 1988 graduate, and his brother, a 2018 graduate.