Marines and Seabees are camped out on Catalina Island, repairing decaying runway
By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: January 27, 2019
CATALINA ISLAND, Calif. (Tribune News Service) -- For more than two weeks Capt. Nicole Stockham has overseen a company of Marines and more than a dozen Navy Seabees tasked with rebuilding a decaying, 77-year-old runway at Channel Island's Airport in the Sky.
The Marines and Seabees are living in tents near the airport nestled in the hilly interior high on the island. The only access is a winding narrow road bordered in places by eucalyptus trees that act as barriers to steep drop-offs. There are dramatic views of the town of Avalon, which draws 1 million tourists annually, and the Pacific Ocean.
Each day about 100 Marines -- combat engineers, heavy equipment operators and surveyors -- start at sunrise, go to a briefing, grab chow and get to work on the 3,000-foot runway. Their mission: to build a new runway guaranteed to last at least 70 years.
The project is expected to be completed by the end of March.
"I'm very happy and proud of the Marines and what they're doing," said Stockham.
The Marine and Navy encampment is similar to an operating base typically used during worldwide deployments or on humanitarian aid missions. Tents are filled with cots, there's a chow hall, there are power generators, maintenance facilities and communication systems.
Since early January, about 100 Marines and 14 sailors (Seabees) have worked on the runway. They have excavated earth, surveyed the site and prepared forms for concrete-pouring.
By Friday, Jan. 25, five large concrete slabs had been poured, with 119 more to go. The effort by the Marines and Seabees is a first in California and critical to Catalina Island and its public airport.
"This allows us to partner with the community and do something extremely helpful," said Lt. Col. Duncan Buchanan, with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which commands the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and the Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 working on the project. "This will allow them to use the runway for years to come. This is the first time a Marine Corps unit in recent memory has built a runway in California."
The runway project, a public/private partnership between the Marines Corps, the U.S. Navy and the Catalina Island Conservancy, is a win-win. The $5 million project began with 500 tons of equipment being delivered in mid-December and troops coming over on Jan. 2. The program is part of the Department of Defense's Innovative Readiness Training Program and matches community needs with military training opportunities.
For the conservancy, one of the state's oldest land trusts, the project saves the island's runway. Over the years, it has required frequent patching costing the conservancy about $250,000 a year. In September, the California Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division told the conservancy that it needed a long-term repair plan to continue to operate the airport as a public airport.
For the Marine Corps, officials say the partnership provides a unique opportunity to plan, train and deploy Marines to execute a construction mission that tests critical skills. The Marines, expert at working with concrete, are being supported by the Navy Seabees, who typically are tasked with construction work such as facilities, schools, hospitals and on bases. Some Marines involved in the project will go on to construction projects at 29 Palms or overseas.
"This is extremely important," said Lt. Col. James Bauch, commanding officer of the MWSS-373. "We work with concrete but what we do tend to do are smaller projects. Some Marines here were in Iraq and Afghanistan and used concrete to fix craters on runways to support operations against ISIS."
These expeditionary runways typically include leveling dirt and laying interlocking metal planks. The runways and airfields are temporary.
"We looked at this project and our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and realized we need more experience with concrete to support Marine aviation," Bauch added.
The project is also providing an opportunity for the Marines and Seabees to collaborate using their various specialties.
"These are all citizen soldiers," Bauch said. "They are all direct representatives of our society and every single part of the country. It's how they come together, maintain a sense of humor and get the mission done."
The airport's history
Catalina's airport was built in 1941 by William Wrigley. It was carved out of the surrounding landscape by leveling two mountaintops and filling in the remaining canyon to create the main runway. The airport got its name from its location as one of Catalina's highest points, an elevation of 1,602 feet.
During World War II, the airfield and the island were leased to the U.S. government to serve as a front line in the defense of the nation's West Coast. The Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to today's CIA, used the island as a secret training base for intelligence agents, and the airport's runway was covered with debris so enemy aircraft would not be able to use it as a base.
After the war, the airport was opened for public access in 1946. The conservancy took ownership and responsibility for the airport's operations in 1972, and has managed it as a general aviation airport, said Tony Budrovich, Catalina Island Conservancy president and CEO.
More than 7,000 flights come into the airport each year, about 30 percent of those providing mail service and FedEx and UPS deliveries to the island's 4,000 year-round residents. The island also is a popular tourist spot.
Officials closed the main runway on Monday, Dec. 10. Only a limited number of flights are allowed to land on an alternate runway.
The idea for the project
The joint rebuild project began more than two years ago with an idea from a Navy pilot, who was flying his own aircraft on his day off and landed at the airport.
"He said this runway has a lot of years on it," Budrovich said. "And asked if we had ever considered a partnership with the Navy."
The conservancy talked to the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps about the project and for the next 18 months, the conservancy worked with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Navy personnel and the I Marine Expeditionary Force to develop the plan.
"They loved what they're getting and we loved what we're getting," Budrovich said.
Navy Seabee Lt. Michael Brown, a Navy reservist, was overseeing the Marines' work on Friday.
"When you go overseas, it's harder to get resources," he said, explaining the 500 tons of equipment, trucks and supplies that traveled from Miramar by caravan to the Port of Los Angeles and then over to Two Harbors, from where they were trucked up the steep and narrow winding roadway.
"On an island, it's much more limited and mimics environments that are not here in the U.S," he said.
Brown, who works as a mechanical engineer for Siemens in Allegany, N.Y., explained that he and other Seabees, familiar with construction, are helping the Marines who are not as familiar with the scale of this project.
Recent rain, along with cold temperatures and fog have made the work more challenging.
"It was cold and the wind was slapping the tent all night," he said. "There have been times where there's been a constant fog and it chills you to the bone. I came here thinking I'm going to an island in the Pacific and it will be warm and I brought jeans and T-shirts but every night I put on my fleece. Up here, there's no wind block."
He also got a chance to take in a bit of the island, including visits to Avalon where he checked out shops, the museum and the casino. While there he also met locals.
"It's been amazing how when we're walking around they come right up to us and thank us and are appreciative of what we've been doing," Brown said.
For Stockham, who has deployed to Afghanistan, the project has been a valuable tool to teach her Marines about future deployments.
"One of the good things about this concrete project of this scale is that all the Marines get their hands in it," she said. "Having several days in a row and seeing the whole process work rather than doing a tiny skill is a huge takeaway from this."
This deployment, she said, ranks among the best she's experienced.
"We have fresh fruit, hot meals and showers," she said. "My morning commute, I walk out of my tent and go to the next tent. There's no drive."
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