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Time to get dirty: Wisconsin runway offers training to pilots in the air and airmen on the ground

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Todd Pendleton
  • 182nd Airlift Wing
At the southern edge of Fort McCoy, Wisconsin exists a runway with no lighting, no markings and no pavement. It’s not the ideal airfield pilots are looking for when making a landing, but sometimes it might be the only option if you’re delivering cargo or personnel at a deployed location.

To prepare for that possibility, an Illinois Air National Guard C-130H3 Hercules from the 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria, Illinois flew to Young Landing Zone at Fort McCoy May 14 to train both pilots and airfield management Airmen on how to keep the flying operations going on even the most basic of airfields.

Senior Master Sgt. Brent Bixby is the airfield management superintendent with the 182nd Operations Support Squadron and served as the range safety officer for the day’s activities.

“Once established on the range we performed an inspection of the landing surface and aircraft movement area [taxiway] We are looking for compliance with established regulations and compliance with the established airfield survey,” Bixby said.

With the help of Master Sgt. Christy Ericson and Senior Airman Britta Sindelar, the next step was to open the runway for operations.

“Once the landing and movement areas were deemed safe for aircraft operations we set-up the assault panels to advise the aircraft commander of the touchdown zone. Our final piece was to ensure what we call ‘Essential Services’ were in place”, Bixby said.

With the Fort McCoy Crash Fire Rescue crews on standby and the runway ready to accept aircraft, Lt. Col. Kevin Strauss, an instructor pilot with the 169th Airlift Squadron, could then allow the pilots to land, taxi and take off.

“Most larger airports including Peoria have a concrete landing surface that is also grooved to provide better traction and water drainage. Some smaller airports that we fly to only have asphalt runways which are more slick when wet. One of the things that makes the C-130 unique is that it can operate from unimproved landing surfaces including dirt, gravel, sand, and some modified airplanes of other units land in snow [and] ice pack”, Strauss said.

Three pilots had recently finished the Pilot Checkout course at Little Rock Air Force Base, and in order to be fully certified and mission ready aircraft commanders, they had to complete an Unimproved Landing certification.

“The new aircraft commanders training at Young LZ had this exposure operating on an unimproved surface, and they will be able use this experience in the rest of their careers,” Strauss said.

With the aircraft now using the airfield, Bixby and his crew are patrolling in the Runway Supervisory Unit truck.

“Upon each landing and take-off we are required by regulation to check the aircraft landing and movement surface”, Bixby said.

Strauss was also monitoring the conditions from inside the aircraft.

“Dirt doesn’t seem too slippery at taxi speed, but at takeoff speed of 105 knots or 120 mph, even the smallest correction while maintaining the center of the runway can make the tires skid on the surface. The runway also starts to rut as the 110,000 pound aircraft makes tire marks, which makes tracking even more difficult. All of our objectives were met, but we stopped our operations because the landing zone was no longer in a satisfactory condition to continue”, Strauss said.
At that point, the RSU truck was driven onto the C-130 during an engine running onload, and the aircraft returned to Peoria. Strauss was satisfied with the mission that day.

“Overall it was great training for everyone and a fun day of flying up in Wisconsin,” Strauss said.

Bixby was pleased with the cooperation between Airmen both in the air and on the ground.

“Our airfield management philosophy allows us to support and integrate with our flying operations not as a sideline operation, but as a vital member of our training team,” Bixby said.