Meet David Stites |

David Stites has I’ve always had a knack for getting things done.

In his eyes, the sense of achievement that results from creating something of your own is an incomparable feeling.

It is easy to imagine that it would be as blissful for Stites to create something in the world’s most powerful research reactor as he does. He’s been doing just that for over 30 years at the Idaho National Laboratory.

But somewhere in between, Stites found something else that could rival that sentiment: restoring vintage snow cats.

Jump headlong into engineering

Born and raised in Pocatello, he spent much of his childhood enjoying himself. At any time he could be seen fishing with a handcrafted fishing rod in his family’s creek, making rafts from scratch, or learning to tinker with engines from his father and grandfather, who were both mechanics.

When it was time to pursue a career, one of Stite’s friends told him he was going to enroll at Idaho State University to study engineering and Stites followed suit, “if you jump, I’ll jump”.

“I never thought of becoming an engineer, or even planned,” said Stites. “My friend just said, ‘Let’s sign up,’ and that’s how I became an engineer.”

Find a new hobby

Originally popularized in the mid-20th century, snow cats (short for snow and caterpillar) are vehicles known for their ability to drive on snow with ease. The machines are widely used for the maintenance and repair of ski and snowmobile trails as well as for navigation in harsh tundra biomes during polar research expeditions and even on search and rescue missions.

Stites’ experience with the machines began while hunting in rural Idaho in 2010 when he came across a 1953 Frandee Model D. He needed a new weekend project, found its owner, and brought the old snowcat home.

Little did he know he would spend the next eight years completely restoring the machine to how it looked and felt like it rolled off the assembly line in 1953.

Support of the Advanced Test Reactor

Stites’ career at INL began in 1988 as a reactor operator for the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), the world’s most powerful research reactor.

As the only one of its kind in the nation, ATR is a critical subject of research that can enable decades of radiation exposure in typical reactors in just a few years and significantly accelerate the progress of nuclear energy.

Stites held various positions at ATR, including 19 years as a designer of reactor experiments. It has been part of the reactor facility for the past ten years

and Projects Engineering Group. In his role, Stites ensures that the plant remains the most powerful test reactor in the world. This is a rigorous yet rewarding process.

“It could take you four years to design an experiment that has never been done before or a new modification to be introduced into the reactor,” said Stites. “But this sense of achievement, when it is ready and functioning after all these years, is simply the best.”

Beginning of the recovery process

As with all of the experiments and modifications he helped with ATR, the recovery process of Stites’ Model D was far from easy. Since the snowcat was several decades old and extremely rare and only 20 of them were ever produced, the resources for its assembly were scarce.

“The reactor takes a lot of research to design an experiment, and much of it uses up resources from when the reactor was first built,” said Stites. “It’s the same with snow cats. I need to research all of the parts, motors, and technology they used for the snow cats, just like I did with the reactor. “

After several years of research, he began front-to-back overhaul of the Model D, replacing virtually everything inside and outside the machine. Rather than updating the snowcat with newer components, the machine should feel like he was stepping back once he was in the Model D seat in 1953, and after eight years, he did just that.

“The whole process was a parallel feeling to what I was doing at work,” said Stites.

Thinking about 33 years at INL

2021 marks 33 years since Stites began his tenure at INL, but it also means something else: his retirement.

When he thinks about his time at INL, one would think that the accomplishment Stites is most proud of is the myriad of experiments he brought to life, or perhaps the enhancements he made at ATR. But in his eyes, it’s the mentoring he’s done with engineers over the years, including his own son.

“It makes me proud,” said Stites. “It’s very nice to be able to pass on some of my knowledge because I’ve been doing what you do for so long.”

Click here to read the April issue of Idaho Falls Magazine.

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