A massive runway refurbishment project at Dover Air Force Base will force the temporary relocation of the base's 18 C-5M cargo jets. (Roland Balik/Air Force)
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DOVER, DEL. — The runways at Dover Air Force Base will undergo a $98.3 million refurbishment over the next 22 months — a massive project that will force the temporary relocation of the base’s 18 C-5M cargo jets beginning next summer.
The project’s early stages will coincide with a critical operational stretch. During the early staging of equipment and supplies, beginning in about a month, Dover fliers will be joining an Air Mobility Command-wide effort to help clear remaining U.S. equipment out of Afghanistan, where the U.S. combat effort is set to end on Dec. 31.
Dover operates the Defense Department’s largest aerial port and provides about 20 percent of the department’s heavy-load strategic airlift capability, according to base commander Col. Michael Grismer, who called the work “essential to preserve the viability” of the busy base.
Once the prep work is complete, workers will tear up and replace the north-south runway, 01-19, a 9,600-foot stretch of concrete and asphalt that is 69 years old and has cracking and spalling issues. In order to remain fully operational, the work will initially skirt the runway’s intersection with runway 14-32, giving the base’s giant cargo jets a single clear path for takeoffs and landings in both directions.
That’ll change around June, depending on the weather, when workers tackle the intersection, said project manager Micah Shuler of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. This will force the closure of 01-19, the shorter of the two runways.
While longer 14-32 will also essentially be cut in half, the base’s smaller C-17 jets will have enough room to take off and land on either side of the construction. On the northwest portion of the longer runway, fliers will touch down beyond a 1,000-foot safety buffer zone past the construction. The C-17s will also be able to land on the southeast side, in that direction.
Neither of those two runway segments, however, are sufficient for normal operations of the C-5M, one of the world’s largest cargo airplanes, said Lt. Col. Stephen Sylvester, a C-17 pilot and chief of safety for the 436th Airlift Wing.
That will force the C-5Ms to operate elsewhere for anywhere from four to six months, Sylvester said. About two-thirds of the way through the project, as construction moves further west from the intersection, the shorter runway will reopen, allowing for their return, he said.
As a result, some C-5M aircraft and crews will be temporarily relocated as they operate out of alternate airfields. Crews sent to closer airfields could also rotate, lessening time spent away from home. Sylvester said those airfields have not yet been identified by higher headquarters.
Use of one runway, and for several months only a portion of a second, will limit airfield operational options.
“It requires us to be a little more vigilant with the weather,” said Lt. Col. Derek Salmi, 436th Operations Support Squadron commander, pointing to crosswind limitations. “But largely, it’s things we deal with on a day-to-day basis.” Other airfields are always an option if the weather isn’t cooperating, he said.
Those options include Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, as well as the Air National Guard bases at New Castle, Delaware, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, the two officers said.
The scale of the work is impressive. Solid concrete, in some stretches 15 inches in depth, will replace the concrete and asphalt portions that now make up 01-19, said John Sclesky, engineering flight chief for the 436th Civil Engineer Squadron.
The cracking in the concrete portions of the shorter runway was caused by a chemical reaction between alkali in the old Portland cement and the aggregate silica, forming a gel that swells as it absorbs water, causing expansion, Sclesky said.
There’s a larger issue, officials said: The runway grades are uneven. The shorter runway is lower than the longer one by nearly 2 feet over long stretches, Sclesky said. “When it was built, it was actually built a little bit deficient,” Sclesky said. “And we’ve been trying to correct it over the years. And the only way to correct it is to rebuild it.”
The shorter runway will receive new airfield lights and navigation aids for fliers. An old underground fuel line that runs under the runway will be relocated.
The initial work is all preparatory: obtaining airfield access permits, staging equipment and stockpiling supplies. The vast amount of concrete needed for the job will require temporary batch plants on the base itself.
At the height of the project, between 100 and 120 workers will be involved daily, said Anthony Campbell, who is managing the project for Versar, Inc., the lead contractor. Versar officials could not say how many workers might be hired locally.
While the project is large, Shuler said, “Overall, it’s pretty simple. It’s concrete pavement. It’s not a lot of real technical stuff, once you get past the design of the concrete mix.”