By Tech. Sgt. Jared Marquis
21st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — When you are dependent on airlift as your lifeline to civilization nine months out of the year, making sure that capability functions properly is vital. What is almost as important is the planning involved in a runway construction project because you have a three-month window for completion.
At Thule Air Force Base, work is underway to upgrade the runway.
The last upgrade took place in the early 1990s. The goal is to upgrade the runway every 20 years, which means Thule is due, said Capt. Bartholomew Dietrick, 821st Support Squadron Operations Flight commander.
Because of the limited construction time and their need to be able to support larger aircraft, especially in the winter, half the project will be complete this year, with the remaining half slated for next year.
The first half of the project — the first 5,000 feet of the 10,000 foot runway — began in early June and must be completed by Sept. 15, Dietrick said. After that, it will be too cold to do any of the work.
Because the base can’t use half of its available runway during the construction, they’ve had to change how the airlift mission typically works.
The normal airflow for resupply missions and personnel transport is a Boeing 757, which brings about half of their perishable cargo and any personnel from the United States, and can’t land on a 5,000 foot runway, he said. To adjust for the construction, the team had to modify contracts and work with Air Mobility Command to secure a C-17 Globemaster III to continue bringing the personnel and supplies.
In addition to the U.S. resupply mission, the base is typically supplied by an Airbus from Denmark, which also can’t land on the shortened runway.
“Using smaller aircraft, we lost about two-thirds of our cargo capacity from those missions, but through routing supplies and building up just before runway construction, we will make it through with that limited capacity,” Dietrick said.
The base also worked with contracting to have smaller cargo planes fill in for the lost capability.
Because of the construction, the team also lost its precision approach capability, he said.
“We had to bring in mobile radar so we can maintain that capability,” he said. “Without that radar, we wouldn’t be able to get planes in if we have fog or low clouds.”
That also required some additional personnel as Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, sent three maintainers and an air traffic controller to Thule to help during the construction.
“The radar saved us a bunch at the beginning,” he said. “We’ve had great weather lately, but the fog will come back. It’s paid for itself already.”
As part of the construction, Thule is also changing the paint scheme to follow the airfield standard.
“All of our markings were red, and everything else was painted white,” he said. “Now we are switching to traditional markings. The asphalt will be black with the markings on the runway white and taxiway yellow.”
That means pilots will see the same scheme at Thule that they do most other airfields, he said.
Dietrick said the construction is on schedule, with weekly meetings to monitor the progress and ensure everything is going as planned.
Once they complete the first phase of construction, the base will once again receive the larger supply aircraft until next May when they prepare for phase two.
With the seaport only open around three months out of the year, those resupply missions are extremely important to preserving the continued operation of the Air Force’s most remote base. The construction, once completed, will ensure the integrity of the runway and Thule’s lifeline to civilization.