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Officials say joint military, conservancy repair project of Catalina Airport’s runway at its midpoint

Military leaders, nonprofit reps and elected officials discuss Runway Repair Project, scheduled for completion next month

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Officials say joint military, conservancy repair project of Catalina Airport’s runway at its midpoint

Marines and Seabees are pictured on top of a concrete surface at Catalina Island's Airport in the Sky Friday, March 1.

Marines and Seabees are pictured on top of a concrete surface at Catalina Island's Airport in the Sky Friday, March 1.

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune

Marines and Seabees are pictured on top of a concrete surface at Catalina Island's Airport in the Sky Friday, March 1.

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune

Marines and Seabees are pictured on top of a concrete surface at Catalina Island's Airport in the Sky Friday, March 1.

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Military personnel with the United States Marine Corps and the United States Naval Construction Battalions, also known as the “Seabees,” swarmed onto Catalina Island in January. Arriving by sky and sea, the troops set up camp and began their mission: To provide Catalina Airport a renovated runway where aircrafts can come and go as they please.

It’s been a few months since the island’s increase in military presence, and now officials can conclude that the Runway Repair Project– a joint military and Catalina Island Conservancy initiative that began December to repair the Ace Clearwater Airfield at the Airport in the Sky on Catalina Island– is at its midpoint, according to project officials March 1.

Friday afternoon, military leaders, conservancy representatives and elected officials discussed the project and observed progress on the airport-runway reparations. More than 100 Marines and Seabees are replacing asphalt with concrete as part of a training procedure for future missions, in addition to providing a long-term use for the runway.

“I’ve represented Catalina Island for 20 years now,” said 47th District Congressmember Alan Lowenthal Friday. “[…] So, I heard about the need, and I’ve seen the need to fix the airport, the runway for many, many years. And I tried to be a support as much as I can to the conservancy over the years. […] So, I’m just really pleased to see this […] come to fruition.”

Tim Kielpinski, chief operating officer with the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy that operates the runway, explained that, mid-last year, officials with the Caltrans Department of Transportation Division deemed it necessary to fix what was described as an “aging” asphalt runway.

As conservancy officials mulled ways to approach such an expansive initiative, a retired Seabee told Kielpinski to enlist the help of his fellow Navy Construction Battalion brothers and sisters.

“That’s [the Seabees’s] skill set,” Kielpinski said. “Well, how do you reach out to the Seabees as a civilian?”

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
On Friday, March 1, Colonel Matthew Seay of Marine Wing Support Squadron 37 praised the work and dedication of his fellow Marines and the Navy’s Seabees on the Runway Repair Project, a joint effort from military and the Catalina Island Conservancy to increase the long-term use of the Catalina Airport by repairing its runway.

And that’s when conservancy officials got the idea to contact Lowenthal’s office. The congressmember recommended the Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program, an initiative that matches community needs with military training.

Months of planning eventually led to an agreement where multiple Marines and Seabees would work to refurbish the runway– an effort that officials said would benefit locals and allow military men and women to gather experience for future missions.

In December, tons of equipment were transported to the island’s airport in preparation for the project.

“So, I was here when the first set of Marines came,” Kielpinski said. “[…] And they started elbowing each other and chuckling and going, ‘Wow, this is [in] a lot worse shape than any of the runways in Iraq or Afghanistan.’ […] The runway itself was not in good condition.”

Officials said that the island relies on the airport to transport not only residents and tourists, but a majority of its goods– such as supplies, packages, mail, etc.

Lisbeth Andriessen, IRT major with the Marine Corps, said the training program prepares the military for deployment, adding that it assists communities and allows residents to build relationships with each other.

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
During a briefing of the Catalina Island Conservancy and military’s joint Runway Repair Project at the conservancy’s Airport in the Sky March 1, 47th District Congressmember Alan Lowenthal addressed the audience and commended the project’s progress.

“We restore military readiness– that’s the training portion,” she said. “We also strengthen alliances as we attract new partners and bring business reform to the GOP. This really is a win-win for the military and the communities and just all around.”

Colonel Matthew Seay of Marine Wing Support Squadron 37 said the Marine Corps is not used to doing such a permanent project, as its work is focused on being “temporary and expeditionary.”

“This is not something we do,” he said. “That’s more in the Seabees realm when you talk about something that is a little bit more enduring. And that’s really where our only hesitation was. ‘OK, we’re not normally looking at this from a permanent perspective.’ But we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ And I’ll tell you, from our commander’s perspective, that’s a really key piece to this– being able to look at a project like this, that’s really not always totally within our comfort zone, and saying, ‘Yes, we will be successful.’”

A Southern California native, Marine Corps Brigadier General Rick Uribe, who has more than two-decades experience touring with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Friday’s briefing about the airport project was his first time being at Catalina Island.

“I’m a fixed-wing pilot by trade, so I’ve flown over it [at] about 46,000 feet, and from 46,000 feet, it’s about that big,” he joked, as he brought his fingers together to indicate the small size. “But what a beautiful place. Kudos to you all for what you’ve done out here to preserve this place.”

Uribe commended the work of the conservancy and the men and women with the Marines and Seabees, adding how he believes a joint training project of this magnitude has never been done.

“This is providing great training building in a place where we’re not getting shot at, and so that’s kind of a benefit,” he said to a chuckling audience. “[…] I’d also like to thank the men and women of the Seabees, because this is not just a Marine project. Frankly, the Seabees are the ones that are mentoring our Marines. We have about 80 percent of the mission, but that 20 percent the Seabees are doing are the mentors. We are the mentees.”

Tony Budrovich, Catalina Island Conservancy president and CEO, said the Marines and Seabees have been “a wonderful partner” and have displayed “professionalism” and “extraordinary” abilities in their work.

“The town of Avalon is very military-pro,” said Budrovich about the local residents who live more than 30 minutes away from the airport and project site. “They love celebrating the military, but the people of town have done some wonderful things for the troops that are here. And we love that community feeling. So, both from the legislative standpoint of giving us their support and from the Marine and Seabees standpoint, it’s been a great project.”

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
A Marine-squadron helicopter landing at the Airport in the Sky Friday, March 1

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Officials say joint military, conservancy repair project of Catalina Airport’s runway at its midpoint