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Vandenberg’s runway gets variety of landings

SATELLITE ARRIVAL–Workers at Vandenberg Air Force Base prepare to offload the Aquarius/SAC-D spacecraft from an Air Force C-17 transport plane in March. 

A spaceplane, a remotely piloted vehicle, parachutists and, of course, a wide assortment of military aircraft - those are just some of the landings that have occurred in the past year at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The base doesn't have any airplanes regularly assigned there, a fact that surprises many people. Yet, the airfield crew has been busy in recent months, and not only with the traditional landings seen at other military facilities.

Having, or not having, aircraft permanently assigned at the 99,000-acre base doesn't steer the requirements for the airfield, said Capt. Jimmy West, airfield operations flight commander.

"If you are open for business, that airfield out there, that three miles of concrete, that drives all your requirements, because every wheel that touches down out there, you own," West said.

"It's our responsibility to make sure it's safe. We have an active airfield here, so we own aircraft. We own lots of it. No one should ever think it's a low-priority asset because we don't have anything assigned. Because people fly in here every day, it's our duty to make sure that the environment is as safe as it can be."

The Vandenberg runway serves as a training ground for military pilots, which makes military planes a familiar sight over the Lompoc Valley.

"We get traffic from just about every base around California that will come in here. It's not really scheduled. It's not really routine either. It just comes and goes in spurts," said Rick Czap, air traffic manager.

The 15,000-foot-long runway with both visual flight rules and instrument flight rules makes it attractive for pilots of planes - such as an F/A-18 from Lemoore Naval Air Station and a C-130 from Point Mugu NAS in Ventura County - who are logging flight time, airfield officials said.

"They don't have a lot of competition when they come here, in terms of other traffic trying to get touch-and-goes while they are," Czap said.

Unlike other military airports, Vandenberg isn't wrestling with encroachment issues from nearby communities, either, making it a utopia for what an Air Force base airfield should be like, managers said.

In all, the air traffic control tower handles more than 4,000 operations a year on average, a small number compared to other military installations. For instance, Beale and Travis air force bases in northern California handle about 100,000 operations annually.

Adding to the low numbers are compressed operating hours since the airfield is open only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and is closed for safety reasons during many launch countdowns.

For a good chunk of 2010, the airfield was labeled "for official business only," which further restricted air traffic. One project funded from federal stimulus money involved the installation of asphalt shoulders along both sides of the 3-mile-long runway, while another saw runway lights replaced.

However, what the Vandenberg airfield lacks in numbers, it makes up in uniqueness.

Last fall, the Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft conducted vital training, taking advantage of the sloped airfield prior to being assigned to Guam. A new program, such as testing done by Global Hawk, takes months of preparation to develop, involving various levels of the Air Force.

"It was a big deal for us," West said.

In December, the runway that was originally built for the space shuttle program welcomed its first space plane. The Orbital Test Vehicle or X-37 - a remote, unmanned mini-space shuttle - landed for the first time after nine months in orbit following its launch from Florida.

"That was the exciting part to me, was once it touched and then the relief that it was successful," West said.

The base is now planning for the second X-37 landing, possibly as soon as this fall.

And in a new twist, military parachute teams used the airfield for training earlier this year. They currently are poised to return in November for another cycle of training, West said.

Maintenance is a never-ending chore for airfield operations staff.

"It's like mowing the grass at Disney World. You can't stop. You always have to keep going. If you get behind, you can't catch up," West said.

The other challenge is wildlife, as staff members must keep deer - jokingly referred to as Osama bin Bambi - as well as coyotes, birds and other critters off the airfield for the safety of equipment and people. Their efforts to develop short- and long-term solutions garnered the team a safety award, according to West.

West, whose hometown is Fremont, came to Vandenberg from an assignment at Travis AFB. Instead of a staff of 130 at Travis, the Vandenberg airport had less than 10.

It's an assignment he sought on the heels of a hectic deployment, thinking it would be quite quiet to be at a base that launches satellites aboard rockets and tests missiles.

Instead, he found a challenge.

"I think operationally I've been tested. I never would have thought that. I believe I'll leave here a better airfield ops officer than when I arrived because I was exposed to stuff that I never even thought I'd be exposed to," West said. ‘It's been a very fulfilling experience."

 

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