California’s least-known airport is reviving

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When pilots safely land on a California vacation island next year, they may blame an “invasion” by the US Marine Corps.

A team of more than 100 US Marines is scheduled to arrive on Catalina Island, 20 miles off the US mainland, in early 2019 to repair the airport’s main runway, a 3,000-foot-long asphalt strip built nearly eight decades ago.

California's least-known airport is reviving
California’s least-known airport is reviving

According to the Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC), a land trust that operates the airport and administers the majority of the 21-square-mile island, which us rated one of the finest in America, a private contractor will begin tearing up the runway in December.

Marines will land on Catalina in January via boat and helicopter from mainland stations. They’ll camp at the airport, just like they would in the field, and will have access to 500 tons of equipment, the conservancy added.

As a consequence, the island destination will benefit from a more robust concrete runway.
“With this runway rehabilitation project, I envision the CIC operating for more than 75 years,” says Tony Budrovich, president and CEO of the CIC.

The runway, which is 1,600 feet above sea level, was cut out of two mountaintops and the valley in between was filled in. The ultimate conclusion placed it somewhat higher in the center than it did at the ends. This means that while pilots are rumbling down it, they may have difficulty spotting the end of the runway.

According to the CIC, the runway simulates landing on an aircraft carrier for pilots that use it.

However, the Marines are not participating in order for military aviators to practice carrier landings.

They’re coming for two additional reasons: constructing a runway on Catalina serves as excellent training for constructing or rebuilding a runway on a future battle-scarred island, and they can help the nonprofit conservancy save an aircraft carrier’s worth of money.
The conservancy estimates that the restoration will cost $5 million. It will be funded entirely via private donations.

US Marine labor prevented a further $1 million from being added to that, according to conservancy spokesperson Laura Mecoy.

The runway construction is being undertaken by the Defense Department’s Innovative Readiness Training Program, which, according to its website, is charged with the aim of “producing mission-ready personnel via military training opportunities that deliver critical services to American communities.”

“This difficult endeavor enables Marines to acquire important experience rebuilding damaged runways and strengthens our capability and preparedness to conduct a variety of combat operations across the world,” Marine Lt. Col. Duncan Buchanan said in a statement.

“It also guarantees that the community benefits from a fully operating airport for everyday needs and to assist in any future recovery operations following natural catastrophes,” he continued.

As if on cue, Marines 6,000 kilometers across the Pacific received a live demonstration of what the colonel was talking about last week.

“Taking advantage of stateside training opportunities, such as the [Catalina Island Conservancy’s] Runway In The Sky project, is critical in preparing us for events like this,” a 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Facebook post stated, linking to a report from Tinian, where Marines were leading the cleanup and repairs following Supertyphoon Yutu’s devastation of the US territory’s 3,000-person population.

The Airport in the Sky is critical to the island’s 4,000 residents and 1 million annual visitors, as it handles more than 2 million pounds of freight, Budrovich added.

However, the bulk of Catalina Island visitors arrive by boat. According to the island’s Chamber of Commerce, just 13,000 passengers passed through the Airport in the Sky in the first nine months of 2018. Nonetheless, 14,000 takeoffs and landings occur on the runway each year.

Geoff Rusack, a pilot and Santa Barbara resident who owns a property on the island, says he utilizes the runway around 50 times each year and has done so for 35 years.

“I’ve heard that several other pilots avoid it due to the state of the runway,” he informs us.

“Potholes occur as a result of plane landings, and loose asphalt fragments might wind up on the runway surface,” adds Rusack, who is also a conservancy board member.

The Marines’ effort should eliminate that, and while landing on the runway can be difficult, he believes the journey is worthwhile.

“When they pick Catalina, [pilots] and their passengers are in for a wonderful treat — not just on the flight over, but also on the approach, the excitement of landing in this unique location, and the experience they receive while on the island,” Rusack explained.

The conservancy said the notion of collaborating with the military came up two years ago.

“The Conservancy Team and our outstanding military partners have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to bring this project to fruition,” says Kellie Johnson, head of the Catalina Island Conservancy Board.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we are ecstatic to improve service to the Catalina towns and attract aviation enthusiasts from throughout the country.”