Military finish Catalina Airport runway project

Completion of months-long initiative with Marines, Seabees will allow tourists, residents to utilize airport to full capacity.


Daniel Green | Signal Tribune

Military personnel, Catalina Island Conservancy officials and contributors to the Airport in the Sky Runway Repair Project pose for the official ribbon cutting of the runway Friday at the island’s only airport.

Atop a 1,602-foot-tall mountain in the center of Catalina Island– roughly 10 miles from the city of Avalon– the public patiently anticipated the arrival of an oncoming aircraft last Friday near a completed, long concrete surface.

Attendees readied their smartphones to capture the looming sight of a 1947 DC-3 aircraft, which quickly, but surely, made its descent onto the steady concrete runway– the first airplane to officially do so after a months-long runway renovation project.

Touching ground, the classic airplane slowly maneuvered off the runway and stopped amid praise from residents. The pilots and the couple responsible for donating a large sum of money to the runway’s project– Gary and Kellie Johnson– disembarked the aircraft.

With a visible wide smile on his face, Gary, vice president of ACE Clearwater Enterprises, had only one word to describe his excitement: “Bitchin’!”

The landing of a 1947 DC-3 at the Airport in the Sky’s main runway Friday, May 3, was the only affirmation Catalina Island Conservancy officials and military personnel needed to celebrate the official ribbon cutting– and first landing– of the site’s completed renovation project.

Daniel Green | Signal Tribune
A 1947 DC-3, originally owned by Phillip K. Wrigley, makes its way down to the now completed Airport in the Sky’s runway on Catalina Island on Friday, May 3, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The aircraft– originally owned by Philip K. Wrigley, renowned American chewing-gum manufacturer and executive in Major League Baseball– was the first plane to officially land on the airport’s completed concrete runway. The renovation project was a three-month long initiative that had Marines and Navy Seabees collaborate as part of an Innovative Readiness Program (IRT).

The work officially concluded mid-April. The nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy, which operates the airport, planned the project with the military to meet the standards of the California Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division that requested a long-term plan to repair the site and continue utilizing it as a public property.

“Not very long ago– in the matter of less than a year– we were not going to have a runway,” Tony Budrovich, Catalina Island Conservancy president and CEO, told the Signal Tribune. “It was at the end of its service life. […] And working with the military, we found a way to bring back Catalina history– 70 years of flying history– on this island. […] And it’s triumphant, because what the military did in three and a half months would have taken private contractors well over a year. It’s just super impressive understanding what the military is capable of, both Marines and Navy Seabees. It just makes us proud to be Americans.”

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. In January, the military workers set up an encampment at the airport to stay on-site during the project.

According to the conservancy, its partnership with the Department of Defense allowed a total of nearly 200 Marines and Seabees to be deployed to Catalina Island throughout the duration of the project.

Lisbeth Andriessen, IRT major, said her responsibilities are to oversee the various projects throughout the military. The IRT’s main priority is military training in a real-world environment that can benefit the community.

“This is my favorite part of IRT– when it’s ‘mission complete,’” Andriessen told the Signal Tribune.

“The effect on the community, I think you really see the impact. […] The effects of that training is [that] you get a runway or you get different services to the community, so this was a perfect project that we could bring the Seabees, with their expertise, to train the Marines, who wouldn’t normally do a concrete runway. They would normally do an expeditionary runway.”

Along with a completed runway, the Airport in the Sky will also don the name of “ACE Clearwater Airfield,” in honor of the couple who operate aerospace company ACE Clearwater Enterprises and their $1.5-million contribution to the initiative.

Kellie and Gary, respective president and vice president of the company, were among military officials and contributors who were honored with various proclamations from Los Angeles County and the City of Avalon for their input and support for the project.

Kellie, who resides on the island with her husband, said the project was about preserving “legacy.”

“[…] Thank you for this incredible opportunity to fly on the DC-3,” she added. “[This is] the first time I’ve ever landed at Airport in the Sky. To land here with the original DC-3 is beyond cool.”