Preparing for landing

Marines, Seabees begin months-long project to repair Catalina Airport Runway

Video by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune

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Those planning their vacation trips to Catalina Island soon will have to stick to traveling by boat or helicopter, as work on Catalina Airport’s runway that began in January has shutdown the main landing strip.

In early January, more than 100 U.S. Marines and Navy Sailors, or “Seabees,” arrived via helicopters and boats to Catalina Airport to partner with the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy for a project that will refurbush “an aging main runway at Catalina’s only airport.”

Design by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune

“There’s probably going to be some pretty cool airplanes landing here down the road, because there’s a lot of awesome vintage aircraft in the civilian-aviation community,” said Gary Johnson, vice president of ACE Clearwater Enterprises, which recently donated $1.5 million to the project. “The state of the runway before needed a lot of repair constantly. Now, with a brand new concrete runway, state-of-the-art, I think we’re going to see some really cool aircrafts.”

Conservancy officials stated that, previously, workers would “patch” the runway to maintain its stability and security. However, mid-last year, the California Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division told the conservancy, which operates the airport, that a long-term plan needed to be put in place to continue operating the site as public property.

Catalina Island Conservancy officials said the airport is the island’s hub for all mail, packages and medical and emergency supplies.

Last October, the nonprofit announced its partnership with the Marines and Navy for the Airport in the Sky Runway Repair Project. In December, troops began moving equipment, about 500 tons, to the island for the reparations.

“This is really an awesome, unique training opportunity for the Marines and the Seabees out here,” said 2nd Lt. Zachary Bodner, community-strategy operations officer and spokesperson for 3rd Marine Aircraft Ring (MAW). “[…] You see humanitarian disasters across the world [where] Marines fly in and help fix runways. Look at Haiti, the earthquakes and tsunamis there. One of the first steps is repairing that runway. And so this type of training makes the Marines and Seabees faster and more experienced responding to this.”

The military workers set up an encampment at the airport to stay on-site during the project, which is scheduled to be completed by late March and opened to the public thereafter. Officials noted that weather may delay the project further.

Marines and Seabees will work together to spend the next three months replacing the airport’s asphalt with concrete to allow a “durable and reliable surface for landing” that could add “75 to 100 years” of use to the runway.

“[The Seabees] are the Navy’s premiere construction group,” Bodner said. “The whole purpose for their jobs are to build. And they do some incredible stuff. […] The Seabees that are out here, […] they’re operating like an advisory role, because, you know, they’re much more experienced at this, and they’re kind of teaching the Marines, making sure we’re doing it right. They’re showing us how they do it. We’re gonna learn from them, and they’re gonna learn from us. For a lot of the Seabees, you’ll see this is the first time they work with Marines. […] This is a great opportunity to, not only partner with the conservancy, but also partner with our Navy brothers and sisters.”

Jessica Lopez, a builder first-class and leading petty officer with the Seabees, said during the Signal Tribune’s Jan. 25 visit to the Catalina Airport that she’s never worked on a project of “this scale.”

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
Pictured are Marines and Seabees at Catalina Airport performing repairs on the terminal’s runway as part of the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy’s long-term project to keep the facility open to the public.

With 10 years experience working construction with Seabees around the world in places such as Afghanistan and Africa, Lopez said the experience working with Marines is “exciting,” but exhausting.

“It’s tough work,” she said. “It’s very tiring. You may think that there’s 100 people out here, so it should be easy, but it’s definitely a lot of work, and it’s tough. But we’re getting it done. It’s not something that’s alien to us.”

Lopez said working with concrete is a Seabees’ specialty.

A Chicago native, Lopez said she is used to being away from home for long periods of time– an easier task when her husband is also serving alongside with her– but did add that being away from her newborn is “tough.”

Camping by the airport, Lopez said the military have entertained themselves with simple activities, such as playing cards.

Although handy with concrete, Marine Sgt. Rebecca Beltran, 29, said she’s never laid a runway before.

Beltran, who monitors the team leaders, told the Signal Tribune that the project “opens up our eyes [to] our capabilities that we’re able to do as a unit.”

“The Seabees, like I said, they have a plethora of knowledge,” she said. “As combat engineers, we don’t specialize in one part of our MOS. We basically do everything except for plumbing. With them, they’re builders. So, they specialize in building or in metal work. With them, they’re kind of like the subject-matter expert. So, they teach us some things, and we teach them some things.”

Gary and his wife Kellie Johnson, who is president of Southern California aerospace company ACE Clearwater Enterprises, said they provided their aforementioned $1.5-million donation to the conservancy’s project to leave behind a “legacy.”

January marked the beginning of a months-long project to refurbish the runway at Catalina Airport, also known as “The Airport in the Sky.” The California Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division told the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy mid-2018 that a long-term plan to refurbish the site needed to be put in place to continue operating the airport as public property. Marines and United States Naval Construction Battalions, or “Seabees,” have partnered to perform the reparations, scheduled for completion in March.

When the airport reopens, it will also be called “ACE Clearwater Airfield,” Gary said.

“Over the years, a lot of our employees have contributed to the aviation community as a whole,” he said. “[…] And we had an opportunity that came up to be able to name a runway, name an airfield. We’ve been looking for something that’s sort of a legacy for the company and for our employees. […] And we thought it was just a great way to leave the island better than we found it.”

Kellie said she was first introduced to the island in the ‘60s by her grandparents. Since then, Kellie and Gary have traveled to the island for the last 28 years, she said, adding that they have recently purchased a home in the area, as well.

“It was as if the stars just aligned,” she said. “It just made complete sense to us. […] This is a critical lifeline […], not only to the conservancy, but also to the communities of Catalina, as well.”

The Marines and Seabees set up an encampment at Catalina Airport, as pictured in this photo on Jan. 25 during the Signal Tribune’s visit to Catalina Island. Military personnel will work on Catalina Airport’s runway as part of a months-long project to add 75 to 100 years of use to the site. The project is scheduled for completion in March and is expected to open to the public by April, although officials said weather may delay the work even further.

Tony Budrovich, president and CEO of the Catalina Island Conservancy, told the Signal Tribune that he is grateful for the couple’s donation, adding that it will aid in the nonprofit’s mission to keep the island as natural as possible.

“So, unlike most open-space public lands, it’s the wonderful generations of donors that keep the conservancy here, that keep the natural look of California alive,” he said. “The island has looked like this for 200 years. That’s our mission and goal. We love people to experience it and join it. We’re very proud of the work the conservancy does here and the partnerships that we have both in the business community and in the private community.”