By Sgt. 1st Class Darrin McDuffordJanuary 20, 2015
FORT IRWIN, Calif. - Dust filled the air as 120,000-pound wheel tractor-scrapers ripped layers of dirt from their resting place on the ground, while a 9,000-pound soil compactor treaded the remaining dirt, preparing the surface for a forward landing strip.
Six months ago, the 389th Engineer Battalion, a subordinate unit to the 416th Theater Engineer Command, received the lead on the airstrip. Since the project's start, the 389th supervised two survey and design detachments and four horizontal construction companies to lay the groundwork. The landing strip will be completed this February, and will spread across 25,000,000 million square feet or almost 574 acres of Fort Irwin's desert land.
A task from the chief of staff of the Army came down informing Fort Irwin commanders that the National Training Center will conduct a Joint Forcible Entry exercise during a rotation this July, which will require the airstrip with dual 8,000-foot runways to support aircraft as large as the C-17 Globemaster III with its wing span of 170 feet and length of 174 feet.
According to Maj. Paul M. Grant, chief of Plans Operation Group, Fort Irwin has an airstrip already, but doesn't meet the requirement.
"USARC (United States Army Reserve Command) received the request from Forces Command of our need for the landing strip to support the exercise," said, Grant. "This forward landing strip would have to enable live fire, accommodate infrastructure, and, importantly, allow flexibility."
The strip will allow field landings to replicate operations in an austere environment and create more training opportunities for rotational units.
With an unlimited budget and an abundance of time, this might have been easy to accomplish. Except, the Army had only $750,000 and seven months to do it.
Building began in December, and now the units have just over a month to complete the project.
"A civilian contractor would charge between $15-20 million to build this," said Capt. Andy Marchese, 389th Engineer Battalion, Forward Landing Strip officer in charge
"Army Reserve engineers are geared for construction, and this provides them valuable training," Marchese added, "This experience is unique and outside of normal operations but within the realm of exceptional training."
The 389th Engineer Battalion is the lead agency for this project in support, but it cannot complete it without the use of Soldiers from the 387th Engineer Company, 411th Engineer Company, 801st Engineer Company, and 312th Engineer Command. Additionally, the 313th and 300th engineer detachments provided the survey and design.
The units worked in tandem with the other units and with some overlap of personnel.
"Each unit follows on the next within their rotation," said Sgt. Maj. Rick Virgil, 389th Engineering Battalion sergeant major, "Some engineers have a minor learning curve, but there hasn't been any problems with the changeover."
The unit went to the Air Force to seek technical specifications of the landing strips and received advice, but the Soldiers in the survey and design detachments designed the runways and an apron, which is an attached parking area.
"Our Army Reserve engineer companies have been working hard to transform this patch of ground into a forward landing strip. This landing strip will be a key feature to allow future Army rotations to complete their training," said Marchese.
More than 200 pieces of equipment being used to complete this operation was drawn from Equipment Concentration Sites 370 and 371 located in Yermo, California, and Fort Hunter Liggett, California.
The project requires a tremendous use of logistics. Engineer leadership faced various challenges: Getting people to and from the installation, handling administrative requirements, moving tons of dirt, plus the 100,000-200,000 gallons of water required to add moisture to the desert dirt allowing it to be pliable enough to move.
This has also been a great training opportunity for engineer Soldiers, a kind they don't get often," said Virgil.
"Anytime when training is great like this, and Soldiers are increasing their skills, is a great day in the Army," said Staff Sgt. Lindsey Schilling, supervisor with the 411th Engineer Company.
Grant said, "I have another airfield, and that increases training objectives. Yearly, Fort Irwin sees 10 rotations of brigade combat teams and mechanized infantry of thousands of personnel form Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and coalition forces who train here."
"My dealings with the 389th have been excellent. Their attitude is great. This is what they want to do, and they have been aggressive about getting this accomplished," stressed, Grant, "I have 110 percent confidence in them."
These teams of construction engineers used bulldozers, scrapers, graders and other heavy equipment to move tons of earth and material to put in an airstrip for training. This builds a force of Soldiers who compile a breadth of expertise that can be used in natural disasters, conflicts or streamlining readiness at a fraction of the cost.