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Marines will repair Catalina Island's airport runway in training exercise

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: October 30, 2018

CATALINA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — A plan to restore an aging runway on this remote Channel Island in partnership with the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy is underway.

In January about 100 Marines, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, are expected to come ashore and establish a base on the top of a mountain in the island’s interior. There they will set up a camp, including places to sleep and eat, and from there will work to repair the runway at Catalina’s Airport in the Sky. The $5 million project is expected to take three months and will be used as a training exercise for the Marines.

The project is a collaboration between the Catalina Conservancy and U.S. military. It will restore the 77-year-old runway that has become cracked and decayed. Presently, there are about 7,000 flights onto Catalina Island each year.

“If we went with a private contractor it would take 11 months,” said Tony Tony Budrovich, president and CEO of the Catalina Conservancy, a non-profit land trust that promotes education, recreation on the island.

The Marines will do a complete repair of the 3,000-foot-long and 60-feet-wide asphalt runway. The runway is in a remote section of the island, 11 miles away from Avalon, so the project will simulate working in a foreign country during a deployment.

“Catalina is like an island in the Pacific. Because there is no rental equipment, if they don’t bring it, they’ll have to improvise a solution,” Budrovich said. “It’s exactly what they deal with in an extreme location. They not only have to build the runway, but have to create buildings, set up hygiene and cooking.”

Budrovich calls the collaboration a win for the conservancy and a win for the military.

“This project allows Marines to gain valuable experience in repairing damaged runways, and increases our capabilities and readiness to tackle a range of military operations across the globe,” said Lt. Colonel Duncan Buchanan, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. “It also ensures that the community benefits from a fully operational airport for daily provisions as well as to aid in any potential recovery efforts after natural disasters.”

Catalina’s airport built in 1941 by William Wrigley. It was carved out of the surrounding landscape by leveling two mountain tops 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 for 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, Budrovich said.

Because of its location and configuration, the airport is challenging for newer pilots, he said.

It looks like an aircraft carrier from the sky. Still, more than 7,000 flights come into it a year. About 30 percent of those are 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 and swells to about 1 million people in the summer months.

The joint project between the Marine Corps, Navy and the conservancy began with an idea from a Navy pilot more than two years ago. The pilot 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 it came together.

“They loved what they’re getting and we loved what we’re getting,” Budrovich said.

Next week engineers from the Marine Corps will visit the island to begin work on some of the details. In December, equipment such as bulldozers, graders and other supplies are expected begin to arrive. Marine Corps command staff will arrive in early January, followed by troops.

“This really makes me proud of our military,” Budrovich said.

©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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