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Yakima Training Center airstrip cleared for takeoff — and a chance to enhance military training

Soldiers with 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Division Artillery, 7th Infantry Division, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., send a round downrange during a combined arms exercise at Yakima Training Center, Yakima, Wash., Feb. 24, 2016.

CODY QUINN/U.S. ARMY PHOTO

By DONALD W. MEYERS | The Yakima Herald-Republic | Published: November 17, 2018

YAKIMA TRAINING CENTER (Tribune News Service) — After 15 years, military transports can again land at the Yakima Training Center.

Military officials formally reopened the Selah Airstrip on Thursday morning as a C-17 Globemaster from Joint Base Lewis-McChord landed on the 5,200-foot-long asphalt strip. Two mobile rocket launchers then drove off the plane and over to an area alongside the airfield and, with two other units, fired a salvo over a nearby ridge.

Rebuilding the airstrip makes the base one of the few training centers were troops can fly in and deploy just as they would in a real-world combat situation. The others are at Joint Reserve Training Center at Fort Polk, La., and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.

“There is not another facility in the Northwest that has this kind of capacity,” said Air Force Col. Bill Percival, deputy garrison commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The training center is satellite facility of the Western Washington base.

The Selah Airstrip was first built in 1958 as a dirt track through the sagebrush about 7 miles from the garrison’s main gate. In 1976, the runway was given an additional base layer of gravel and asphalt so it could accommodate C-130 Hercules aircraft, which were used at the time to ferry troops and equipment.

But the runway deteriorated over time, with cracks becoming so bad that it was closed to almost all military aircraft in 2003.

That put a bit a crimp in practicing for deployments, said Lt. Col. Joe Hansen, a battalion commander in the 17th Field Artillery Brigade at Lewis-McChord. Prior to Thursday, artillery crews and their mobile launchers would be flown to Moses Lake, and then had to drive back to the training center.

“What this airfield means is that our joint training exercises will be more realistic,” Hansen said.

At Thursday’s ceremony, two of Hansen’s artillery crews demonstrated a “rapid infiltration” operation, with the artillery crews firing about 10 minutes after getting off the aircraft. Afterward, the launchers were loaded back on to the plane, which simulated a takeoff under combat conditions, including deploying flares designed to distract heat-seeking missiles.

Getting a new runway was not without its challenges, though. Started nearly two years ago, the $18.1 million project hit its first delay when a contractor backed out, and again this summer when a heavy-equipment operator’s strike stopped work briefly.

Lt. Col. Roger Gavriluk, the training center’s commander, called the new runway the “crown jewel” of the installation. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Miley has stressed combat readiness, and the airstrip at the training center provides an opportunity for units to fully practice deploying to a war zone, especially coordinating with the Air Force, Gavriluk said.

“There’s only so much realism you can do (without an airfield), and with the Selah airstrip, that is no longer a problem,” Gavriluk said.

In addition to artillery crews, the airstrip will provide training opportunities for special forces and other units that deploy by air to combat theaters, as well as unmanned aircraft operators in the future, Gavriluk said.

Yakima County Commissioner Ron Anderson, one of the dignitaries attending the reopening of the airstrip, said it will help not just the military, but the surrounding community by boosting the base’s contribution to the economy.

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©2018 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.)
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