By Al Vogel (DPG)May 10, 2016
DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah -- From the air Dugway's Michael Army Airfield is a ribbon across endless brown, but to a pilot with an in-flight emergency, it's a beautiful hardtop oasis.
Lt. Col. Luis Ibanez is commander of the Air Force's Detachment 1 at MAAF, which oversees UTTR operations and maintenance. Since taking command last July, he's seen two Air Force in-flight emergencies.
Dugway's civilian firefighters, security, medical and airfield personnel are well prepared for in-flight emergencies. Firefighters carry a boarding ladder to reach the pilot's cockpit, and can spray fire-suppressing foam. A tug with towbar can pull aircraft into a hangar, for Dugway Security to guard it until airmen arrive from Hill Air Force Base, 135 miles away. If explosive ordnance hangs on the aircraft, pilots can land at Dugway, avoiding heavily populated Ogden and Hill AFB.
One of the most unpopulated areas in the contiguous U.S., much of the region's land is government owned. Dugway's northern border abuts the southern border of the Air Force's massive Utah Test and Training Range. Together they offer 16,797 square miles of airspace, approximately half restricted up to 58,000 feet. Both installations conduct thousands of manned and unmanned flights annually for testing or training. In an average year, according to MAAF manager David Rhyne, there are five or six aircraft emergencies.
Michael Army Airfield has a 9,000-foot runway, and adjacent 7,000-foot taxiway that doubles as a secondary runway. Either are long enough to accommodate any U.S. military aircraft. Major renovation of MAAF began in 2003, partly prompted by the need for a safe landing area near the UTTR.
Though within restricted airspace, and not open to the public, MAAF can accommodate civilian aircraft during emergencies. On Sept. 30, 1985, a Boeing 747 was enroute from Oakland, Calif., to Newark, N.J., when a caller reported a bomb would detonate at 11 a.m. The 747, with 146 passengers and flight crew, was diverted to MAAF. It landed at 10:52 a.m., United Press International reported. In two minutes, all passengers and crew evacuated from the 747 via emergency ramps. No bomb was found. Passengers were bused to Salt Lake City to take other flights. The 747 was flown out without incident.
Though MAAF is a major testing airfield for improvements to unmanned aircraft and their systems, and military aircraft land with personnel and equipment for training, it's undoubtedly most appreciated during in-flight emergencies.
A few weeks ago, an Air Force pilot training at the UTTR experienced an in-flight emergency and landed at MAAF without incident. The next day, he emailed Ibanez, the Air Force's Detachment 1 commander at MAAF: "Thanks for all the support last night," the pilot wrote. "It was a class act and everyone was super surprised when I made it back from Dugway in time to make the flight debrief. This is my second time diverting into Dugway, and this was much more efficient and streamlined, which was a pleasant surprise."
An officer of the Operations Support Squadron at Hill AFB wrote, "Thank you very much for the awesome support your team at MAAF provided our F-16 pilot late last night. I've dealt with a multitude of diverts before, but I have never seen a divert recovery go as smoothly as last night's. Thanks to some quick witted UTTR controllers, MAAF had already sprang into action prior to him being wheels down."
Michael Army Airfield will continue to be an excellent facility for testing or training. And occasionally, to pilots experiencing an in-flight emergency, it will appear as a beautiful hardtop oasis.