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Cpl. Geoffrey Heard, Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 cryogenics technician, freezes water on the ground with liquid nitrogen for quality testing at the cryogenics lab at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Ariz., Aug. 27, 2009.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Austin Hazard

Yuma Marines keeping cool with negative temperatures

24 Sep 2009 | Lance Cpl. Austin Hazard

Hollywood movie fans may have some common misconceptions that cryogenics labs house frozen heads in jars or bodies in cryogenic suspension. But the station’s lab is far more useful to military operations.

The cryogenics technicians of Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 use their resources to provide vital support for aircraft systems, as well as other departments throughout the station.

“If you don’t have cryo, you can’t have planes in the sky,” said Sgt. Jerry Safley, cryogenics work center supervisor. “Any aircraft that goes up in the air, we put oxygen on. A lot of the systems in most aircraft rely on us in some way.”

The cryogenics lab is capable of producing up to two tons of either liquid oxygen or liquid nitrogen a day, which both serve multiple purposes. The lab has a large device that takes air, compresses and cools it, then separates it into 99.5 percent, or purer, liquid nitrogen at minus 328 F or liquid oxygen at minus 297 F. These elements are usually stored as liquids to maximize space efficiency.

These products allow many of the aircraft throughout the air station to run and operate safely, said Safley.

The nitrogen provided by the cryogenics Marines makes it possible for pilots to use their landing gear, even after it jams. If landing gear fails, a pilot can activate the emergency landing gear extension system. Depending on the type of aircraft, the system uses pressurized nitrogen to force the landing gear down with 2,500-3,500 pounds of explosive pressure per square inch.

“Any time we have a hydraulics failure, we use the emergency gear extension system,” said Capt. Michael Lippert, Marine Attack Squadron 311 pilot. “Having this system is integral to safe flight operations.”

Cryogenics’ nitrogen also allows pilots to land without their tires blowing out from heat expansion.

“There’s no moisture in it, so when it gets hot, it doesn’t expand,” said Safley.

However, the lab’s oxygen is just as critical to aircraft mission safety. Pilots breathe the oxygen provided by cryogenics when flying aircraft at high altitudes or when forced to eject.

The cryogenics lab supports every squadron on base, including squadrons visiting for training.

But the lab doesn’t just support station aviation, said Safley. Cryogenics also supplies the station fire department and aircraft rescue and firefighting with oxygen to breathe when responding to fires. The nitrogen is also used to properly clean night vision goggles.

The lab’s 15 Marines don’t typically install their product themselves, though the Marines’ main duties are the production, handling, analysis and storage of nitrogen and oxygen, as well as the maintenance of gear and storage facilities. The cryogenics lab is able to store up to 6,400 gallons of liquid nitrogen and oxygen at any time.

During deployments, these Marines are ultimately responsible for all oxygen and nitrogen related gear and provide construction battalion sailors with oxygen for welding.

There’s a good amount of danger that comes along with the responsibility of supporting so many facets of station operations, said Safley. The liquids and gases cryogenics technicians handle are not only pressurized and highly combustible, but can also cause burns.

“We haven’t had anyone die here, but we’ve had people get burned with the liquid,” said Safley.

However, despite the inherent danger of working with nitrogen and oxygen, many of the cryogenics Marines enjoy their job.

“It’s the coolest job in the Marine Corps, literally,” said Safley. “Not everyone gets to work with negative 320 F temperatures every day."

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Marine Corps Air Station Yuma