HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- In order for pilots to fight the enemy in the air, snow removal crews must fight the elements on the ground.
Lt. Col. Craig Hollis, 388th Operations Support Squadron commander at the base, said Hill pilots lose at least two weeks of flying time every year because of snow.
"We lose about 7 percent of our scheduled flying days every year due to weather," he said. "Typically, we will plan on flying 232 days in a given year. Out of that, we usually lose about 17 days due to weather."
Hollis said program officials look at historical weather patterns when scheduling flight missions through the year.
"When we schedule sorties for the year, we might look at December historically and say, 'OK, over the past six years, we've lost this number of flying days on average,' " he said. "Then we keep that in mind when we plan things. But really, in the big scheme of things, 17 days a year isn't that big of a deal."
Hollis said if the snow is bad enough to cancel a particular mission, another mission is probably waiting in the wings.
"A lot of times, if we're unable to do our primary mission, we'll do an alternate one," he said.
Hollis said December, January and February, as expected, are the months when most flying days are lost, but operations can be cancelled by snow even in October, November, March and April.
There are days, though, when the weather outside is frightful and Hill pilots must fly anyway.
"There are circumstances where we will fly in the bad weather," Hollis said. "It's not really a question of if we have to, it's are we able to -- and we are."
On bad weather days, more-experienced pilots are likely to fly and conduct missions rather than the junior pilots.
When working in snowy weather is necessary, pilots must change the way they fly, Hollis said.
"When it's crystal clear, pilots will rely more on their eyes than the instruments in the cockpit," he said. "When you get into inclement weather, all those visual cues go away. It goes from looking outside to looking inside and relying on what you've got in the cockpit."
Hollis said Utah's snowy winters, although sometimes a hassle, give pilots good practice.
"Quite honestly, it can be dangerous," Hollis said of flying in a snowstorm. "And that's why we try to keep our skills proficient. Since man began flying, he's always had to deal with weather. It's one of those things that you are always trying to get better at."
One large part of keeping flying operations running during winter weather is keeping the base's flight line clear of snow and ice.
Lt. Col. Matt Dana, 75th Operations Support Squadron commander, heads the team that keeps the base flight line open for business.
Dana said his crew prioritizes snow removal on the airfield based on where and when flight operations will occur.
"Basically, when it starts snowing, we have guys out there moving," Dana said. "But it's also a function of how much snow, how fast it's falling and what kind of flight operations are scheduled."
Dana said removing snow from the base airfield is a delicate process.
"Obviously, we're different from regular snow removal operations," he said. "We aren't going to drop sand out there because the jets will suck it right up."
Hill's snow removal teams use only plows, sweepers, blowers and a de-icing fluid on the airfield.
Harry Briesmaster, 75th Civil Engineering Group director, said Hill's airfield has 19 million square feet of pavement, equivalent to 312 road lane miles. There are 45 million square feet of pavement on the rest of the base, equivalent to 712 lane miles.
"It's more than just the airfield," Briesmaster said. "We've got roads and parking lots like a small city does."
Of Hill's 64 snow removal personnel, 24 are permanent and 40 seasonal (November through April). With more than 20,000 total employees, a base closure would have an enormous economic impact on the state.
"Historically, we haven't had a base closure or delay in seven years," Briesmaster said. "It would be a huge economic impact if people were even an hour late getting to work. So in short, when it comes to snow, our goal is for it to have zero impact."