Atlantic runway repair reaches halfway point

  • Published
  • By Mila Cisneros
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – For the last two years, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center has been working closely with a team of contractors, U.S. Space Force, United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and U.K. government officials to upgrade a strategically important runway on Ascension Island.

Now close to the half-way point, the AFCEC led $281 million, two-phase project at Ascension Island Auxiliary Airfield will replace the 10,000-foot asphalt runway and upgrade airfield infrastructure originally built in 1942. AFCEC broke ground on the project about a year ago and construction is expected to wrap in Spring 2023. 

“Restoring the auxiliary airfield to its full capability is a critical requirement for the Department of Defense and Ministry of Defence,” said Col. Dave Norton, deputy director of AFCEC’s Facility Engineering Directorate.

The outpost plays a significant role in the U.S. Space Force mission, supported by the Space Launch Delta 45 at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, the Royal Air Force mission, and 14 other missions spanning military, governmental and international agencies.

Taking the lead on the island is Maj. Wade Burkett, a project manager in AFCEC’s Facility Engineering Directorate. 

“There is never a dull moment on the island when you are involved in a construction project of this magnitude,” Burkett said. “The project is in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean and requires a lot of planning, team work and engagement with all the stakeholders.”

The major’s days on the British overseas territory, located between South America and Africa, are filled with morning site visits and afternoon meetings with contractors, and government project management teams in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

He also holds regular meetings with the island administrator running the Ascension Island government, and with the island’s RAF leadership to provide timely updates on the progress and address arising issues. 

The effort is a jointly funded investment by the U.S. and U.K. governments. 

“It’s AFCEC’s topmost priority to keep the Air and Space Force missions in flight by delivering robust infrastructure at installations enterprise-wide,” Norton said. ”The project incorporates innovative design and cost-effective construction techniques to provide agile, safe and reliable airfield infrastructure for the DOD assets and missions.” 

Because the herculean effort requires complex logistics planning and constant collaboration with partners, AFCEC’s presence on the island is essential, Norton said. 

Built by the U.S. military during World War II, the island’s only runway had only received one overlay and minor repairs before the current construction. In recent years, deteriorating conditions of the runway surface meant U.S. and RAF missions to the island were reduced to only one or two flights a week. 

While those flights move all passengers and food as well as some smaller material and equipment to and from the island, most of heavy equipment, materials and machinery for construction had to be shipped via boat, Burkett said. 

“For example, all of the 440,000 tons of aggregate was shipped from a quarry in Nova Scotia, Canada,” the major said. 

Offloading the material was extremely complex since the pier on the island is very small and the water depth very shallow. All the equipment and materials had to be transferred from the ships to small barges in the open ocean before offloading at the pier. 

Additionally, the ocean around Ascension Island is a marine protected area, and the island is home to several endangered species of both plants and animals that can only be found on the island. AFCEC implemented environmental protection measures to protect both the ocean and island during the construction, Burkett said.

Currently, more than 200 contractors on the island have demolished the first half of the runway down to the sub grade or existing soil beneath it, rebuilt the base and sub base layers and are now placing 12 inches of asphalt pavement on top.  

“At this stage, we continue with asphalt paving on the first half of the runway, which should be complete late spring before we transition to the second half of the runway,” Burkett said. 

Burkett’s presence on the island has been instrumental in establishing the partnership and good relationship needed between the Air Force, RAF, local government and the contractors, Norton said.

“We’ve had many challenges during every phase of the project,” said Burkett, who is finishing up his nearly 11 month stay on the island. “But we can only solve those challenges with good planning and constant communication with our partners.”

This month, Burkett is transitioning on-site coordination of the project to a new AFCEC program manager, Maj. Harrizon Sanchez, who is scheduled to stay on the island for the next six months. 

Reflecting on the assignment, Burkett said, “The effort is an excellent example of our countries’ joint capabilities to meet the unique demands of military operations in any environment.” 

Sanchez, who was involved in the acquisition phase of the runway construction project, is grateful for the opportunity to manage the important project. 

“I look forward to joining forces with the Ascension Island team to complete project milestones and solve problems together,” Sanchez said. “Major Burkett set us up for success, and I will keep the construction moving in the right direction.