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Marines Flex Expeditionary Construction Skills by Rebuilding the ‘Airport in the Sky’

Catalina Runway 4/22, with the runway mostly cleared of the old asphalt. The existing taxiway (right) will be used as the temporary runway for limited flights until mid-April, when the new concrete runway built by Marines is expected to receive its first flight. Runway Photo by Glen Gustafson, courtesy of the Catalina Island Conservancy

This post has been updated to clarify comments from Cynthia Fogg on the role of the Navy’s Seabees in the process of rebuilding the runway.

Marines will deploy soon for a unique expeditionary mission: Three months on rugged Santa Catalina Island, off California’s coast, building a concrete runway at a small, cliff-top airport.

Starting this month, members of Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 will rotate to the island in groups from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, Calif., to redo the runway through the Defense Department’s “Innovative Readiness Training” program, officials said. The old, asphalt runway on the island some 50 miles west of Camp Pendleton has been in “fair” condition, with “potholes and loose pavement fragments,” according to the aviation enthusiast website AirNav.

While MWSS-373 Marines can patch up damaged runways – like they did during a recent deployment to Iraq – the airport project on Catalina will test their skills on a whole new level.

“This is a very large, very deliberate project,” Lt. Col. James Bauch, the squadron’s commander, told USNI News. “The work that we did in Iraq was more patches to pieces of runway,” with largest sections covering 20-feet by 20-feet. Marines used quick-setting concrete mix mixed by hand in buckets to repair the holes and cracks, Bauch said.

But bucket brigades won’t work on Catalina. The 3,000-foot-long by 75-foot-wide runway will require enough high-quality concrete to cover an area more than five acres in size and four inches deep. Instead of handling heavy bags of quick-setting powder, Marines will work with concrete from trucks hauling loads from one of the island’s concrete plants.

So the Catalina project is far larger in scope than rapid runway repair work Marines typically do and more akin to larger-scale runway repair and airfield construction done by Seabees and “RED HORSE” heavy-construction squadrons with the Air Force and Air National Guard. “This is definitely on the other end of the spectrum from what we traditionally have trained for,” Bauch said.

To prepare for the project, Marines built two concrete pads in training areas at East Miramar, including a small project at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department pistol range. Several Seabees with Naval Construction Group 1 and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 25 from Port Hueneme helped Marines learn the ins-and-outs of working with concrete and rebar, he said. About 120 Marines and some Seabees will work on the project at any given time.

Marine trucks parked at the Catalina airfield. Photo by Tim Kielpinski, courtesy of the Catalina Island Conservancy

Starting by mid-January, Marines will start pouring concrete, work that will stretch three months. “Once the concrete starts coming in, I think, we’ll be off to the races,” said Bauch. By rotating groups of Marines to Catalina, “we maximize the experience and really take advantage of this opportunity to create a really broad group of Marines who have significant expertise in concrete.”

The Pentagon’s Innovative Readiness Training program started 25 years ago to bolster military readiness while helping local needs. Communities, including remote Native American and Alaska Native villages, request medical, veterinary, cybersecurity, construction or engineering support. Missions often are assigned to reserve units. Some projects are significant, like the long-planned and pending relocation of the Alaskan village of Newtok to higher ground. Others take time. Marine reservists last summer finished a 2,000-foot extension to the Old Harbor airport on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, a project that took six years to complete.

The Catalina Island Conservancy, which owns the airport, tapped IRT in early 2017 to help rebuild the nearly 80-year-old runway. Officials didn’t expect to work with Marines.

“We actually were thinking about the Seabees, because we had heard the Seabees do this type of work,” said Cynthia Fogg, the Conservancy’s government liaison and assistant to the president and board. Referrals took them to Port Hueneme, home to West Coast Seabees, and Camp Pendleton, home of I Marine Expeditionary Force. I MEF and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing assigned the Catalina project to MWSS-373 to rebuild the runway, along with input from Naval Construction Group 1, 1st Naval Construction Regiment and Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 25, Fogg said.

The Conservancy is spending about $4 million for the project that’s valued at $5 million, factoring in the Marines’ labor, said Tony Budrovich, president and CEO of the Catalina Island Conservancy. Budrovich praised the public-private partnership. “It’s amazing how strategically valuable building an airport was for the Marines, and how strategically valuable replacing an airport runway was for us,” he said. The airport sees about 7,500 landings annually.

The airport’s smaller taxiway remains open for limited flights until the new runway reopens sometime in April. In mid-December, a local contractor ripped up the runway, pulverizing the asphalt so Marines can compact it as the base for the new concrete once they arrive on island.

Catalina, said Bauch, is “the most unusual place that we’ve gone to.”

A century ago, Chicago chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., and his family owned Santa Catalina Island Co. and were the island’s major landowners. The island for several years hosted the Chicago Cubs’ spring-training. The airport was built in 1941, and the military used the island for training during World War II. “A lot of the roads, the infrastructure, was built by the Army Corps back in the ’40s,” Bauch said. In 1972, the Wrigleys helped create the Catalina Island Conservancy, a private land trust owning 90 percent of the island. The Conservancy controls most activity on the island, which has about 4,000 full-time residents.

Marines with Marine Wing Support Squadron (MWSS) 373 and sailors with Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 5 offload vehicles from a landing craft, air cushion in support of Exercise Summer Fury 2018, on San Clemente Island, Calif. July 23. US Marine Corps Photo

The privately run Catalina Airport, nicknamed “Airport-in-the-Sky,” is unusual for its location. It sits at 1,602 feet elevation, at the edge of a cliff. Its Runway 4/22 has a hump in the middle to help slow the speed of Wrigley’s DC-3 airplanes. Novice pilots find landing there akin to setting down “on an aircraft carrier that is 1,602′ in the air,” warns the airport’s website.

Ferries and boats, along with ships and barges, move most people, food, equipment, supplies and mail to the island, so a quick trip for last-minute supplies doesn’t happen. “There’s no Home Depot on our island,” Budrovich said, “so you’ve got to learn how to do a project like you’re in the middle of a foreign country.”

The airport’s location and island’s rugged terrain challenged MWSS-373 as it drafted up a plan to get equipment to the island. Capt. Christopher Flood, a logistics officer, weighed the options: Contracted barges or Navy shipping using air-cushioned landing crafts (LCACs). The barge option was chosen, as it required fewer environmental hurdles and is how the Conservancy moves heavy freight, he said. Another challenge came in moving heavy construction equipment along winding, narrow roads from the offload spot at Two Harbors, a tiny town at the island’s neck.

Three barges loaded up the squadron’s equipment and supplies in San Pedro, Calif. Several days before Christmas, Marines finished the offload at Cat Harbor and transported the gear 13 miles to the airport. The equipment included graders, compactors, scrapers, 7-ton transport trucks and 84 pallets of meals-ready-to-eat and unitized group rations. The squadron will set up an expeditionary camp at the airport, with large BASE-X tents and a field mess and medical section. The Conservancy is providing an empty hangar and trailers for the Marines to use for maintenance and support. Marines will buy perishable foods locally and tap into the local water supply.

With the first phase completed before Christmas, Marines will arrive by helicopters and start work in early January, Flood said. They’ll do final land surveys, check the grade and compact the ground, and they’ll work in phases to build the forms, lay the rebar and pour the concrete that will daily by trucks. It’ll take 30 days for the concrete to cure.

Once the runway work is done, the Marines will begin pre-deployment training in April, ahead of a scheduled squadron deployment later this year. “Looking at the world we are in, it’s hard to say what we’ll have to go and do,” Bauch said, noting military operations from hurricane disaster relief to Iraq operations that Marines have been called on to do. “You’ll never know who’s going to be standing on a concrete runway that has to be fixed,” he said. “RED HORSE might not be around. Seabees might not be around. The Marines are going to have to rise to the occasion.”

“Our general says, fix-fight-fly,” he added. “We can’t have an excuse not to be able to do that if we had a training opportunity to be able to ensure that and make it happen.”

  • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

    I’d really rather see them working on The Wall. That and a buck won’t get you a cup of coffee anymore.
    Ta.

    • Centaurus

      Why ? What will a wall do ? Ease your conscience over something we have little control over ? Or have you forgotten what drives human migration ? Resources and Opportunity. What if North America had a wall built around it when our ancestors got here ? Or are you a Native American ?

      • muzzleloader

        What will a wall do? Ask Israel how well the wall has done for them.
        Ask Slovenia how well the wall has done for them in keeping out the migrants that have been overunning the rest of Europe.
        How well did the Berlin Wall do in separating East Germans from West Germans for 28 years?
        The truth is that walls DO work, which is why the democrats are so vehemently opposed to it.
        With a wall, you CAN control who comes in when and where.
        The truth is that the whole planet cannot migrate to America.
        Any sovereign nation has the right to determine who comes into thier country.
        Unlike some nations such as Japan that has no migration at all, America has the right to choose who comes in.
        The wall will be of massive importance to facilitate that.

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        You and I fundamentally disagree.
        The wall my fore fathers faced was the Atlantic Ocean, circa 1690
        There was no welfare, food stamps, medical care or section 8 housing upon their arrival.
        They were Englishmen going to an English territory, with the well wishes of the crown, hoping for future taxes.
        Thus, your comparison falls short.

        Human migration is driven by many things. Only recently has that list of drivers included well finance agitation programs in the home countries. Central American poverty was much worse in the past, why the sudden urge for El Norte?

        America is an idea. It is offered free for the taking. About ten or so books/ documents explain it all. They have long since existed in most every language. One of the key principles is to trust us ordinary folk with our own lives. No one, not even our mother country and sister Anglosphere nations have truly accepted that concept

        The States United are a Place. It is not free. No longer has it got vast open spaces for agrarian settlement. In fact I am often amused by my neighbors here in Oregon, land of tree huggers, who want to limit growth of any sort, remove all fuel consumption (but for themselves) and keep this beautiful place a pristine nature preserve while supporting the admission of millions and millions of despoiling humanity. Cognitive dissonance, that.

        So, I will support the wall, a piece of much bigger and more complex solution to a simple problem.

        ta.

        • Centaurus

          You are welcome to support it long as you’re able to hold it.
          Just put your support where it really counts…more birth control. In California, we can no longer support the teeming masses looking for support of the lunatic fantasy of a “California Dream” Yes, America is an idea and a damn good one. If we fail to live within our limits, we will despoil ourselves through our own inability to live within them. So I don’t think we are so far apart. But your population numbers really only refer to the Nation that is already here.

          • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

            But good old California is a primary habitat for a substantial part of the illegal population.
            California (I was a native) has enough water for 20 or so million people. It has somewhere close to 40 million people. Further, the ‘California Dream’ part is good for only about 5-10 million. Yet it be a Sanctuary State. Cognitive Dissonance.
            Now, a real wall, with an occasionally rifle bullet in the chest of someone climbing the dam thing, would force the illegals to deal with the real Southern California….desert. Slows em down a bit.
            OR, we could refill the Salton Sea with a canal from the gulf of California…

            PS My conscious is fine, thank you for asking.

          • Centaurus

            Crykes, you fail to realize we are the illegal immigrants. Please stay in Oregon. Go play music, it will relieve your dissonance. Apparently your solution is to set up a Berlin Wall type scenario. The master race mindset went out with National Socialism. Try a little more fiber in the diet.
            Hug your kids.

        • Secundius

          Just Small Pox, Yellow Fever, Scarlet Fever and a myriad of other Diseases that could and most often did kill Early American Settlers. Before the US Government Researched the Disease and eventually found a Cure Fore. “You’re tax dollars at work”…

          • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

            Please double check your information. While US Gov R&D funding did work on some diseases, the bulk of work was done privately….

          • Secundius

            So which of the Myriad of Diseases weren’t reasearched and/or funded by the US Government! IF only 1% of my comment is true, it’s still True. Next time a Hurricane and/or Tornado destroys Your property, don’t look for Government Assistances to help you out. Because it just might not be there, because of the Government Shutdown…

        • muzzleloader

          Well said.

  • RobM1981

    You can point out that under most “real” conditions, there won’t be a cement factory already operational there on the island. You can point out that four months is a rather luxurious amount of time, if this was meant to emulate a combat-type of situation.

    Even so, this is a very good thing. I’ve worked in construction and am still a hardcore DIY person, so I speak from experience: Experience is as important as education. Experience is where education becomes knowledge. Knowing how to handle this much equipment is a critical skill.

    Very good idea.

  • airider

    Glad to see the SeaBees contributing … this experience might also lead to more portable construction techniques in the future. While having access to a concrete factory isn’t likely during combat, for the size and goal of this mission, it’s appropriate.

    What I’d like to see is construction techniques developed that can handle the weight of 4″ thick concrete (compression strength, etch) and be more portable and cost the same …. THAT would be a significant advance.

    • USNVO

      Anything really portable is not going to cost the same, there is a reason concrete is used so widely. It is pretty hard to reduce the cost of sand, gravel, and Portland cement mixed with water and poured around rebar.

      As for the modular part, they already have AM2 matting and for something strong, light weight, and reasonably priced, it is hard to beat extruded aluminum. But it still is way more expensive than poured concrete. Modular systems will probably never be able to compete on price or durability with poured concrete but you can’t build a concrete runway in a couple of days either.

    • Duane

      Actually concrete is a pretty easily-developed construction material, even in a war zone. Most of its volume is made up of locally excavated material (rock, sand, and shell) plus water that does not have to be imported to the construction site, or from very far away from the construction site. The cement is an easily transported construction material, readily provided in convenient heavy paper bags. The concrete plant itself is a relatively simple machine, consisting of a mixer and silos containing larger aggregate (rocks or shell) and sand and a controls module. Plus conveyors to move the material around, and of course ready mix concrete trucks to move it around onsite. A concrete plant can be erected in just a couple of days if it is modularized for easy transport and erection.

      We used the matting in WW Two quite often because it was quickly erected, and to overcome poor subgrades (bogs, swamps, etc.). But it was very bulky and the entire surface had to be shipped and imported to the construction site.

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        Portable concrete plants, in various sizes are routine. Seabees own several, IIRC.

        • Secundius

          There’s also “Marston Mats” developed in 1941, Project “Habakkuk” developed in 1942, “Lily and Clover” developed in 1944 and the old Stand By the “Corduroy Road” first used c4,000 BC…

        • Duane

          Yup.

          In fact, most of the currently germinating plans for colonizing the moon or Mars involves transporting a concrete plant to the destination and then utilizing the existing “regolith” to make concrete … rather than trying to transport massive amounts of building materials manufactured on Earth. The trick on the moon or Mars is gathering the water needed … but the experts are working on that too. There is water (ice) on both bodies, but it is tied up in the surficial regolith and rocks.

          • Secundius

            I don’t think transporting Concrete to the Moon or Mars is an Option anymore, but rather 3-D Printing Structure (i.e. Sintering) on site using local materials on hand…

            ( https : // www . machinedesign . com / 3d-printing/can-3d-printing-help-us-colonize-mars )

          • Duane

            The only thing that gets transported is the cement, not the concrete. Concrete is a mixture of cement, aggregate, sand, and water. Cement only accounts for 10-15% of the total weight of the finished concrete. 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing” still requires a binder material (i.e., “cement”) to mix with a base or matrix material (sand and aggregate, from regolith) and laid down via computer controls. It is more akin to high tech concrete than magic.

          • Secundius

            It cost ~$10-Million USD to send ~1-pound to the Moon, and Cement (Dry) weighs ~150-pounds/cu.ft. How must are you willing to Spend. This ISN’T “The Expanse” and No Country on Earth, that I’m aware of has created anything that even comes close to Matching the Efficiency of the “Epstein Drive”…

          • Centaurus

            It only works on TV. Same for “recolonization”

          • Secundius

            Concrete tends to be Porous, and Space being a Vacuum would probably “Boil Out” the Water, leaving you with the Original Substance less Water. Cement…

          • Centaurus

            Water is far too valuable to boil off. Time to bring in the Chemical Engineers.

          • Secundius

            If no Sintering Machines (3-D Metal Printers) are used, use “Bigalow” Habitat’s (Inflatable Kevlar Habitats) first. One a Base is firmly established with a Large Pressurized Structure (Dome). Fill Air Space of Bigalow’s with Concrete, exterior Kevlar Skin with protect Concrete from the Direct Exposure of the Vacuum of Space. At least with a Sintering Machine, you can manufacture other Sintering Machines…

          • Centaurus

            Hydrogen, we still need hydrogen. It either comes from rocks, or it comes from water. The determining factor for this space chemistry becomes heat. And the Sun provides all of it. We will not be bringing hydrogen with us for construction. It has to come from the moon. And earthlings don’t live w/o it.

          • Secundius

            I suspect that what the Large Inflatable Dome is can be used for too. Or build the Colony 10-meters below the Surface…

          • Centaurus

            Well, then since it needs water, I guess that might limit such construction to the lunar poles. Please tell us how to get Oxygen bound as Silicates in the lunar soil back to the form of H2O for the water. Tests on Hawaii have proven that hydrogen reduction of oxides in volcanic soils can release large amounts of oxygen. On the moon, who will develop the hydrogen supply ? It will be nice to see how well we can concentrate industrial techniques for such a process. I’ve changed my mind. Humans don’t need water on the Moon.

  • Duane

    The post didn’t say if the new runway will still retain the old hump in the middle. The hump was helpful for heavier aircraft (like the DC-3s mentioned) as long as they landed within the first 1/3 of the runway, as the uphill slope aided in slowing the aircraft down … but very unhelpful for pilots who land long and find themselves trying to brake to a stop before coming to the end of the runway (which terminates in a cliff!), while rolling downhill.

  • Secundius

    Sort of sounds like the Morrison-Knudsen Civil Engineering Company on Wake Island in November 1941…

  • Capt Bob Erbetta

    Concur with Privileged… let the Jarheads do something more in line with their mission of defending the country…. build the Wall!!

  • It is amazing that are amphibious forces are able to finish the concrete poured by the civilian trucks. I didn’t think they had this capability.! Apparently we are shifting from a combat Force to more of an Amphib repair force