Aircraft to Spacecraft, Airfield Ops Lands Them All

Robert Moore scans the runway for foreign objects from the control tower Feb. 2, 2015, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley)
Robert Moore scans the runway for foreign objects from the control tower Feb. 2, 2015, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Vandenberg's 15,000-foot flightline -- the second longest in the Air Force -- currently has no permanently assigned aircraft; however, it is considered mission essential.

The airfield acts as a hub, receiving launch equipment for the base's primary mission, achieving successful polar orbit.

"I don't believe that the launch mission could happen without us," said Capt. Chris King, the 30th Operations Support Squadron airfield operations flight commander. "When it comes to the hardware, we are where it all begins. This is where a majority of the components come in, this is where it starts."

In conjunction with accommodating the base's space mission, airfield operations is prepared for any number of challenges that may arise from the diverse aircraft landing here.

"When I manage air traffic control and airfield operations, I am able to ensure that people are prepared for the unique missions that we have here," said Rick Czap, the 30th OSS air traffic manager. "We have a lot of missions that are critical and require special handling."

At Vandenberg Air Force Base, airfield operations is equipped to handle anything that is flown their way, from the Antonov An-225 which is the largest aircraft in the world, to the Boeing X-37B space plane; both have made use of Vandenberg's immaculate airfield.

"Anyone that sees this runway will tell you; this is one of the most pristine flightlines they have ever seen," King said.

Refining the runway didn't happen overnight and was necessitated because of the stringent standards for landing the X-37B. Prior to the second landing of the space plane, civil engineer Airmen and Boeing employees spent countless hours grinding down protrusions greater than one eighth of an inch and filling seemingly insignificant divots on the flightline.

"We had very tight requirements from Boeing because the tire construction and the time the vehicle spent in space weakened the rubber and other components," King said. "We are the only airfield in the world that has landed the X-37B which is pretty unique."

When airfield operations isn't landing space planes, or welcoming distinguished visitors they work on other unique challenges.

"Because we don't have the flying focus like most bases, our biggest challenge here, is educating people about what it takes to run an airfield and how we have to run it," King said. "If you have an active airfield, it doesn't matter whether you have two aircraft a year or 100,000 aircraft a year, they all have to be maintained to the same compliance. This is an operating airfield and as such we have to be ready for anybody in the DoD to use it."

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