When Naval Auxiliary Landing Field (NALF) Fentress reopens to military aircraft traffic in October, it will be a totally different airfield. Gone will be the old-style, inefficient lighting, and a runway with bumps, patches over patches, rough sections and long cracks — all too familiar to aviators and Fentress personnel, who man the facility 24 hours a day.
Instead what pilots will be landing on is basically a brand new runway with nearly 2,000 feet of smooth white concrete at each end, level with the new middle section of asphalt, two new landing signal officer (LSO) shacks, LED lighting along the runway, taxiway, in the carrier box and signs, as well as some additional training opportunities for helicopter pilots.
“When you look down at the airfield, basically you’re not going to see anything old, you’re going to see everything brand new,” said Oceana Airfield Manager/Deputy Operations Officer James McDowell.
Years of field carrier landing practice (FCLP) have taken their toll on the 8,000 foot runway. As the primary FCLP runway for 24 squadrons in Hampton Roads, including F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, E-2s and C-2s, the runway sees an average of 46,000 “touch and go” landings annually by pilots honing their skills before heading out to any aircraft carrier.
“It is an ideal location because of the lighting, or lack thereof; it basically mirrors what they would basically see when they’re landing on an aircraft carrier, because there’s no lights around. It’s a tremendous challenge. That’s what Fentress does for the guys,” said explained Fentress Officer in Charge Lt. Jimmy Navarro.
Navarro added that helicopter pilots also use Fentress to practice their night landings with night vision goggles. Because it mirrors [a carrier], it represents what they’re doing out there in the fleet.
The original airfield dates back to 1942, with the current runway configuration constructed in 1952. But with the last major renovation in 1998, and previous to that in 1987, the airfield was past due for an overhaul. Throughout the years, Fentress had to close for weeks at a time for repairs, which meant more use on the runways of NAS Oceana and Chambers Field in Norfolk.
“What we were finding was Fentress was being closed for six to eight weeks for repairs every year. That’s two months out of every year, because we needed to keep it open and repaired,” said Oceana Airfield Manager/Deputy Operations Officer James McDowell.
The project is being done in two phases, with the runway first, followed by the taxiway. The runway is on track to meet the completion date of Oct. 15.
Planning for the renovations goes to 2004, when the decision was made to first do the runway construction at Oceana and then work on Fentress, according to McDowell, who is better known as “Gramps.”
“The initial design was actually done in 2007 and the plans were done in 2010 and 2011,” said McDowell.
In late 2008, it became obvious to McDowell that the repairs needed to be more aggressive, so the worst section —- 287 feet by 7.5 feet on the 2 3 end — was dug up and replaced. The next year, the same size section was dug up on the other end and replaced.
“We were spending an enormous amount of effort keeping it open. We’ve had repairs on repairs on repairs,” said McDowell.
Originally planned for Fiscal Year 2012 funding and a start time in 2014, McDowell said that U.S. Fleet Forces Command fast tracked the project with end of the year money in 2011, awarding the project to Lane Construction out of Connecticut and construction was to start Jan. 15, 2012.
The project received another boost when Capt. Jim Webb, Oceana commanding officer at the time, and Capt. Paul Gronemeyer, commander, Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, decided to close the runway six weeks earlier than initially planned.
“You can’t believe how good of a decision that was! We had six weeks of the best weather in the winter than you’ve ever seen. They made huge headway,” said McDowell about the construction.
McDowell explained that 1,750 feet at the end of each runway has been torn up and being replaced with concrete. “It brings the runway to the new NAVFAC [Naval Facilities Engineering Command] criteria for runway construction,” which requires a single surface up to the arresting gear and 200 feet beyond, to eliminate any type of settling transition between the concrete and asphalt, explained McDowell.
Because the ends of the runway mimic the carrier platform, Navarro said it makes sense to make it concrete, which is more durable, requires less maintenance and lasts longer. “When the planes come up and down on it, it takes a beating,” he said.
The top portion of the middle section is being scraped away and replaced with new, level asphalt. The middle section is also being elevated two inches to its original height, which will improve drainage and bring it up to the height of the new, smooth, white concrete sections. “For once, it will be all even,” said Navarro.
The old-style lighting along the runway, taxiways, and in the carrier box is being replaced by more energy-efficient LED lighting. “They provide a little more visibility as well and they last a whole lot longer,” explained Navarro.
Also under construction is an electrical control building, which will be the nerve center for the lighting and fiber optic connections. The lighting box is being relocated, along with installing a matching regulator controller for the lights. McDowell explained the 480-volt design is much safer for the electricians to repair.
Repairs are being made to rough, uneven spots on the taxiways, before they are repaved and new lighting added. For the first time, Fentress will have a beacon, which identifies the facility as an airport. The construction project also includes a new Automated Surface Observing System, used by military and civilian airport to collect weather data and improves the timeliness of the information.
The old push button box is being replaced with an all new lighting control system, a digital system run by a computer. Two new LSO shacks and two new lens pads for the improved fresnel lens optical landing system (IFLOLS), one at each end of the runway, are under construction.
Several new additions benefit the helicopter pilots with complete sets of markings for an LHD, supply ship and a cruiser, as well as opening new helo pads, providing more training opportunities. Using excess dirt, the contractor built a pinnacle and slope for helicopter landings. McDowell explained how with two sides at 5 degrees and two sides at 7 degrees, the pilot puts one wheel down and “the idea is that you learn to land downhill and you learn to take off uphill.”
As the runway construction wraps up and Fentress prepares to reopen to air traffic, personnel are more than ready. “Our guys here can’t wait to get it reopen,” Navarro laughed.