The air traffic control tower at RAF Fairford, England, will be busier than usual next year when the aircraft from RAF Mildenhall arrive. Master Sgt. Brian Bohanan said controllers from RAF Mildenhall will quickly learn the airspace around the base in western England.

The air traffic control tower at RAF Fairford, England, will be busier than usual next year when the aircraft from RAF Mildenhall arrive. Master Sgt. Brian Bohanan said controllers from RAF Mildenhall will quickly learn the airspace around the base in western England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF MILDENHALL, England — Plans to shut down the runway at RAF Mildenhall for repairs next spring will result in quiet skies over the base, but a flurry of activity at RAF Fairford, where many of the flight operations will be moved.

The $10 million project is scheduled to begin in March and should be completed by the end of August.

The top layer of asphalt will be pulled off and replaced on the runway, which is nearly 10,000 feet long. NATO is picking up 80 percent of the cost and the U.S. Air Force will pay the rest.

“The useful life of a runway pavement is 15 to 20 years,” said Capt. Chaz Williamson, engineer flight commander for the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron.

He said the pavement at RAF Mildenhall has not been rebuilt for at least 15 years.

While the runway is being repaired, flight operations will be dispersed to nearby RAF Lakenheath and RAF Fairford.

Maj. Edwin Skinner, the deputy chief of wing plans and programs for the 100th Air Refueling Wing, has organized the plan that will move normal operations from RAF Mildenhall.

“At Mildenhall, all fixed wing assets have to leave,” he said.

The wing’s 15 KC-135s will make their home at RAF Fairford, about 160 miles to the west. The nine C-130s of the 352nd Special Operations Group will move to RAF Lakenheath, about five miles down the road.

The Navy’s two C-12s based at RAF Mildenhall also will fly from RAF Lakenheath.

Senior Master Sgt. Robert Carter, superintendent of aerial port operations for the 727th Air Mobility Squadron, said a final decision has not been made for the Patriot Express. That chartered 747 arrives each Saturday from Baltimore and then continues to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. It returns to Baltimore via RAF Mildenhall on Sunday.

If it comes to RAF Lakenheath, he said, the terminal and customs services at RAF Mildenhall will still be used. A bus will ferry people between the terminal and the plane at RAF Lakenheath.

He said a C-130 will continue to make a weekly supply visit, dropping in at RAF Lakenheath. Other aircraft will stop by if the cargo requirements make that necessary.

The biggest challenge to the runway closure is the tanker mission of the 100th ARW, which is the only tanker wing based in Europe.

Skinner said about 700 people, including fliers, maintainers, firefighters, air controllers and others, will make their home at RAF Fairford, a limited-use base that gears up for contingencies such as the recent war with Iraq.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the base’s population swelled to almost 2,000, nearly 10 times its normal size.

Some of the Mildenhall personnel will live in Porta-Cabins while deployed to RAF Fairford. The base’s contingency dining facility, which was used extensively during the recent war, once again will be removed from mothballs.

“This is what RAF Fairford does,” said Skinner. “This is no big deal for them.”

That’s the attitude in the Cotswolds, England’s quiet rural region of rolling hills and stone-built villages where the base is located.

“We’ll have visitors longer,” said Master Sgt. Greg McKinney, superintendent of plans and programs at RAF Fairford.

The base will benefit, he said, by having its facilities used for a longer period of time. The squadron can see how they hold up and what improvements are needed.

Master Sgt. Brian Bohanon, chief controller at RAF Fairford, will have retired before the visitors arrive in the spring. But he said Fairford controllers should enjoy the increased activity.

“One of the worst things for an air traffic controller is not having airplanes to talk to,” he said.

Controllers from RAF Mildenhall will make the journey to join the two controllers on duty at RAF Fairford.

RAF Fairford will gain permanent improvements from its visitors. A wash rack to clean aircraft will be built. One hangar will be converted so needed repair work can be done on the tankers’ fuel systems.

Skinner said the cost of having the personnel deployed across the country will be about $7 million, including per diem, costs of food, lodging and transportation, construction and communications upgrades.

A bus will make regular runs between RAF Fairford and RAF Mildenhall, but deployed troops can take their private cars at their own expense, Skinner said. Skinner said the impact will be less at RAF Lakenheath. About 200 people will simply go to work there instead of RAF Mildenhall.

The base, home of the 48th Fighter Wing, however, will be congested, he said, which is the main drawback. He said about $200,000 will be needed for construction and communication upgrades at RAF Lakenheath.

During the closure, the only things flying at RAF Mildenhall will be the MH-53 Pave Lows, the helicopters that belong to the 352nd SOG. To support them, a few controllers and firefighters will have to remain at the base.

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