European edition, Tuesday, June 19, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The skies above Spangdahlem Air Base are uncharacteristically quiet this month.

That’s because the fighter jets that call the base home are gone, and the large cargo planes have bypassed the airfield.

The 52nd Fighter Wing’s A-10s and F-16s left last week so construction crews could begin repairing the cracking 10,000-foot runway.

The runway was expected to last at least 10 years, but inspectors determined last year it needed to be resurfaced. The strip was last repaired in 1998.

“We believe it’s deteriorated a little more prematurely than we would have liked,” said Lt. Col. Kathryn Kolbe, commander of the 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron. “That’s why we’re getting this project done as quickly as we can.”

The base is in the midst of $70 million in construction improvements, but officials said the runway project is, by far, the most critical. The repairs come with a $2.8 million price tag, but that does not include the cost of deploying the wing’s three squadrons for the duration of the project.

“Above all of our other projects, this is the most important,” Kolbe said. “We’re monitoring it very closely.”

Water has seeped between the bottom and top layers of asphalt, contributing to the cracking. Engineers are planning to use a different surface mixture for the runway’s top layer in hopes it will be more durable.

Udo Stuermer, the wing’s engineering flight chief, compared the runway project to the base undergoing “open-heart surgery.”

“It’s that important,” he said. “We have to be very careful.”

Considerable planning and coordination has gone into moving the aircraft and crews, which make up a huge chunk of the thousands of Americans stationed at the base.

A-10s from the 81st Fighter Squadron will stay at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, while F-16s from the 22nd Fighter Squadron have gone to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

F-16s with the 23rd Fighter Squadron will call Buechel Air Base home as they prepare for an upcoming deployment. Buechel is a German installation about 20 miles from Spangdahlem.

The squadrons will continue with their training at their temporary homes.

Air Mobility Command’s cargo planes have also been diverted to Ramstein Air Base and elsewhere.

The runway is on a tight schedule because the planes and airmen plan to return in August. Construction crews are working six 16-hour days a week to get the project done before the end of July.

Workers will even work on Sundays, if needed. The overwhelming majority of Germans do not work on Sundays due to labor laws.

“Of course, the weather is the biggest variable when it comes to asphalt,” Kolbe said.

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