Classic DC-3 lands at Catalina Island airport, signaling completion of $5 million runway overhaul by Marines, Navy

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: May 4, 2019

CATALINA ISLAND (Tribune News Service) — A 1947 DC-3 — originally owned by Philip K. Wrigley — majestically soared over the newly completed 3,000-foot runway at ACE Clearwater Airfield at the Airport in the Sky.

The silver plane, a World War II-era replica, was the first aircraft to touch down Friday, May 3, marking the opening of the renamed airfield and the completion of a public/private partnership between the Marines Corps, the U.S. Navy and the Catalina Island Conservancy to rebuild the deteriorating runway.

The DC-3 was followed by six CJ-6 Warbirds which flew in formation over the runway, landed and taxied toward more than 100 exuberant spectators who cheered and took photos.

A P-30 Lightning and a B-52-Mitchell followed with a high-speed, low-altitude fly-by to the delight of onlookers, which included Marine and Navy commanders, Catalina Island Conservancy leaders and local politicians.

The $5 million runway project began with 500 tons of equipment being delivered to the island in mid-December, with troops coming over Jan. 2. The program is part of the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training Program and was undertaken as a training exercise, preparing Marines and Seabees for missions on islands and in other remote areas.

Navy Lt. Brenton Heisserer, an Innovative Readiness Training Program project manager who oversaw 44 Seabees from the Naval Construction Force, said seeing the DC-3 land was a humbling experience. Large-scale construction projects such as this aren’t new for the Seabees, so Heisserer worked with the Marine Corps to get their combat engineers, heavy equipment operators and surveyors ready for the airfield renovation.

“I thought it was a great example of how a combined team of military organizations, civilian organizations and private and government entities all sort of came together to accomplish something significant for not only the military but the customers we serve,” he said. “It puts into perspective how teams can really accomplish and overcome difficulties, challenges, and obstacles. You unplug someone from that team, it would not have happened.”

For the Conservancy, one of the state’s oldest land trusts, the project saved the island’s runway. Over the years, it has required frequent patching, at a cost to the conservancy of $250,000 annually. In September, the California Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division told the conservancy it needed a long-term repair plan to continue to operate the airport as a public facility.

On the Marine Corps end, officials say the partnership provided a unique opportunity to plan, train and deploy Marines to execute a construction mission that tests critical skills.

“It went better than expected,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. James Bauch, commanding officer of Marine Wing Support Squadron 373. “It forced us to really look at logistical problems of getting a lot of equipment on an island with little infrastructure.”

Marines shipped equipment from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. There, they loaded the equipment on to barges.

“It’s not just getting everything loaded, it’s an actual thought process that goes into it,” Bauch said. “So, when the boat lands, you have the right assets staged.

“We also had to make sure we had life support for Marines like a field kitchen, showers and laundry,” he said. “When you’re in field conditions, we want to make sure Marines stay clean. If you don’t have that you can get sicknesses.”

The Marines and Seabees lived in tents near the airport nestled in the hilly interior high on the island. The only access there was a 12-mile winding narrow road with eucalyptus trees that were barriers to steep drop-offs.

Winter storms proved to be among the greatest challenges. A shower trailer was blown away and Marines had to make sure their tents were secure.

Rains also caused difficulties on the runway. Marines worked hard to make sure the soil was compacted enough to pour the concrete. Each time the rains came, Marines had to go back and rework the areas.

“It’s a very exhausting process, it’s tough work,” Bauch said. “Once they got into a rhythm, they were able to move faster. We got it done because young Marines put a lot of effort into it.”

After the 100 Marines and Seabees completed the project they headed back to their respective installations.

The Marines are now at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms training for an upcoming deployment to Kuwait, where they will repair airfields filled with cracks and craters. A year ago, they were on similar missions in Kuwait, Bahrain and Syria, doing concrete work.

“It wasn’t anything of the scope of this project but it drove home the need that we needed this skill set, ” Bauch said. “Engineers normally focus on expeditionary solutions to problems such as creating temporary landing fields not intended to be there longer than the mission is. This is a change in mindset. This gives us lots of skills that the Marine Wing Support Squadron doesn’t often exercise.

“A lot of what you do is training for the worst-case scenario but you never know what you’re faced with,” he added. “You try to get people conditioned with as many different skill sets as you can.”

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