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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — When storm clouds roll in, Tech. Sgt. Bradley Steele heads outdoors. He doesn’t mind clearing snow from the airfield during a raging nighttime blizzard because he’s never alone.

“There’s usually 15 to 20 other operators out there,” he said. “A lot of times it’s good to get away from the hectic schedule of sitting in the office, answering the telephone. It’s a good break because you’re seeing your finished product.”

The heavy-horizontal-repair superintendent for the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron, Steele operates snowplows and supervises Misawa’s snow and ice removal team — which this year was named best in the Air Force. The Balchen/Post Award recognizes excellence in airport snow and ice removal in commercial, general aviation and military categories. The Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives recognizes six winners each year. Formerly called the Balchen Award after Arctic explorer and aviator Col. Bernt Balchen, the award now also honors Wiley Post, who along with Balchen was one of the International Aviation Snow Symposium founders.

Misawa’s 35th Civil Engineer Squadron beat out Alaska winter heavyweights Eielson and Elmendorf Air Force bases for the Balchen/Post, said squadron commander Lt. Col. David Maharrey. More than 8,000 commercial and military flights were launched at Misawa despite 158 inches (more than 13 feet) and 94 days of snowfall last winter.

“No flying missions were canceled due to the airfield not being cleared,” Maharrey said. “It’s a constant challenge because our weather is so unpredictable.”

The maximum-recorded snowfall in a 24-hour period last winter was 10.6 inches on Feb. 10 — “not even a challenge for Misawa Snow Boyz!” notes Misawa’s Balchen/Post award citation.

Misawa’s airfield, roads and sidewalks are maintained in winter by about 151 personnel and 112 vehicles, including plows weighing 54,000 pounds that can blast through ice or snow. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force and Japan Airlines also help keep the runway clear, the citation says.

Japanese workers are crucial to the effort, Steele said.

“Most of them have been here 20 years doing snow removal. We just hit the hot spots. Everything else they have covered. It would be impossible … with military alone,” he said.

That experience will be especially counted on this year: The military snowplow operators who led the way in the 2004-’05 winter are deployed to the desert while airmen who spent the winter in Kuwait are at the helm this year.

“Now we’ve got something to live up to here,” Steele said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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