Wednesday, September 16, 2015

TOP STORY >> Next 60 years at LRAFB

Leader executive editor

As Little Rock Air Force Base celebrates its 60th anniversary next month, the construction of a new runway is one of the largest infrastructure projects since the base opened on Oct. 9, 1955.

Back in the early 1950s, the community raised $1,180,000 ($10.5 million in today’s dollars) to buy 6,100 acres of land in Jacksonville and donated it to the military, which spent $48 million (worth $425 million today) to build the air base. Land was also donated by the Nixon, Dupree and Thompson families and others.

Col. Charles E. Brown Jr., commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, says the new 2.3-mile runway under construction shows the military plans to use the air base for several decades, either as the main installation for C-130s or perhaps as a base for other aircraft 30 years from now.

He said the Air Force considers the air base “a national asset.” The base has an annual economic impact valued at $813.6 million.

“A $124 million project on just a single runway shows the level of interest and importance the Air Force has in keeping this air base up and running,” Brown said in an interview last week.

It’s the first major overhaul of the runway in 60 years. In 2010, the base put a new layer of concrete over its rough surface, but it was just a stopgap measure until a completely new runway was built.

The new runway will be 12,000 feet long, the same length as the old one, and 150 feet wide, 50 feet narrower than the existing runway, but deeper. The first phase of the project is underway with ground preparation and utility work. It includes demolition of half the runway during construction.

There have been some delays, Brown said, but “as far as getting it done in the fall of 2017, we’re on time.”

Contractors are digging below the surface where the runway was built and will be putting in a whole new foundation that will handle any airplane, the colonel said.

A Boeing 747 piggybacking the space shuttle landed here in 2001, Brown said. LRAFB is up there with the most durable bases, such as Edwards Air Force Base in California and other big test bases when it comes to versatility and reliability, he noted.

“People ask all the time,” Brown said. “What’s the future of Little Rock Air Force Base? I tell them, ‘Just look at the air park,’” where several types of airplanes going back to the 1950s are on display.

“We’ve had over 12 different missions, very diverse missions, everything from fighters to bombers to missiles to helicopters supporting the missiles to reconnaissance to now the home of C-130Js. We’ve also had the KC-130s, the refueling missions. You look at the history of the air park, and you say to yourself, ‘Someday this may not be the home of combat airlift, but it will always be Little Rock Air Force Base because every one of those missions was successful based on support from the community.

“The community made all 12 missions successful. When you blend a perfect combination, they make it synergistic with the entire installation. It is a great relationship and design we have here,” the colonel said.

He trained as a navigator and combat pilot, flying the two-seat Strike Eagle F-15Es in Iraq and Kuwait in 2003 and C-130s in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2005.

“We’re the home of combat airlift, and that’s not by accident,” Brown said. “The C-130 is the best at what it does — airdrop formation and delivery, as well as intertheater airlift.”

He trained as a navigator at Little Rock Air Force Base in 1998 and flew C-130Es here in 2004. He was also chief of wing safety with the 314th Airlift Wing in 2008-09 and was commander of the 62nd Airlift Squadron from 2009-11.

He said he loved flying the old C-130s, but “the best thing about the C-130Js is that it proves that the only thing that can replace the C-130 is another C-130. I loved my time in the E and H. The J is definitely an advanced technological system with half the crew. It doesn’t have the flight engineer, the navigator on board. All of that is made up by computer systems on the aircraft. It flies just like a C-130, a little more power as far as cargo payload and some extended fuel range and some efficiencies.”

The 19th Airlift Wing has modernized its fleet with all C-130Js and will have a total of 28 on the flightline, one of the busiest in the Air Force. “It goes into the dirt fields in Africa and Afghanistan,” the colonel said. “It does the heavy lifting in Iraq. When we’re doing the intertheater airlifts, it’s definitely a priceless asset.”

The 19th Airlift Wing is involved in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, as well as supporting Operation New Normal by keeping aircraft on alert at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and in support of Operation New Normal in West Africa.

“The genius of the C-130 is that it is always involved in something. If it’s not doing contingency aircraft, it’s hauling humanitarian supplies to forward outposts in Africa. It’s doing humanitarian airdrops to folks in northern Afghanistan, and it’s doing airdrops to refugees in Syria and in northern Iraq. So, one facet or another, whatever you call it, combat contingency or humanitarian effort, the C-130 is there playing a role.

“I love C-130s. I love taking care of airmen, and, in my adult life, Arkansas is where I spent more time in my Air Force service, and it’s where I call home. My wife is from here. We have family up in Harrison. She went to school in Fayetteville. It is a community I love, a profession I’m compassionate about. It’s like working from home, and in the meantime I get to take care of airmen.

“When you look at the base, my goal is that every airman should know the role they play in the mission. Across the board, they’re all participating in a mission we call airlift command. I tell them your distance from your office to the flightline does not determine your value to combat airlift, and I use as a vignette the defenders at the front gate on June 15 who defended this base when evil came knocking at the door, and they prevented it from coming in. You can’t get further from the flightline than the front gate, and they were absolutely combat airlifters that day. That was the day of the shooting.”

At a ceremony Monday, Brown presented Staff Sgt. Zachary Freese and Airman 1st Class Codee Smith of the 19th Security Forces Squadron Air Force Commendation Medals for stopping the attack by an armed Jacksonville man who crashed his SUV at the front gate. (See story this page.)

(This is the second part of a three-part interview with Col. Brown. See for the first part.)