Air Guard opens new combat training runway

It’s a 3,500-foot-long stretch of cement with a few hundred feet added on, just in case. That’s not much space on which to safely land a heavily loaded, half-million-pound cargo plane, but officials here say it’s the perfect runway for Mississippi Air National Guard pilots to train on.

Mississippi National Guard members and special guests gathered in the summer heat at the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center here July 9 to cut a yellow ribbon for the Air National Guard’s first C-17 Globemaster III assault landing training facility.

Called Shelby Aux Field, the 210-acre airfield is one of only two runways in the world specifically designed for C-17 short-field landing operations. It was constructed to meet the training demands of the Air Guard’s 172nd Airlift Wing, which operates and maintains eight of the aircraft.

More than 300 people attended the ceremony. They watched a C-17 flyover and a landing that demonstrated the airfield’s and the airplane’s capabilities. Speakers included Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley, director of the Air National Guard; Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commanding general of the 1st U.S. Army, and Maj. Gen. Harold Cross, the Mississippi Guard’s adjutant general.

“It’s great to come out and see something that has been on the drawing books for many, many years and now it’s ready to be used full time,” said General McKinley. “It means a lot to our country, it means a lot to the state of Mississippi and it will provide a lot of training for many years to come for Airmen flying the C-17.”

The Jackson-based 172nd was the first Air Guard unit to fly the C-17, which Air Force officials call the service’s “most flexible cargo aircraft.”  They say it can operate from small, austere airfields including assault runways as short as 3,500 feet and only 90 feet wide. The aircraft turns on narrow runways by using its backing capability to make a three-point turn.

Capt. Brian Matranga, a pilot for the 172nd, said such maneuvers are generally performed by aircraft commanders. The wing has approximately 44 of them, and all are required to make assault landings every training cycle.

“That’s a lot of training we have to accomplish … and a lot of times it’s hard to schedule at out-of-state facilities,” said Captain Matranga.

An aircraft commander or mission pilot is the only one who can conduct the steep and swerving descents and short stops using thrust reversers and brakes during an assault landing. It’s an initial qualification achieved at aircraft commander upgrade school at Altus Air Force Base, Okla.

Such landings can be conducted in blackout conditions in which aircrews wear night vision equipment to see special lights defining the runway. It could be compared to landing on an aircraft carrier at night, except that the runway is a lot longer and is not pitching and rolling.

However, a C-17 is longer than three Navy F/A-18 Hornets and can carry a 70-ton Abrams tank and more than 100 Soldiers.

A new three-stall fire house and operations center also has been built at Shelby Aux Field to support the training operations. Officials said they would share the facility with active duty C-17 units. It will provide users with real-time scoring and feedback on their landing maneuvers.

With 172nd Airmen managing weekly airlift missions to Iraq, and with a history of supplying airlift to joint forces in Turkey and Afghanistan, the training is relevant. The wing’s Airmen said they remain ready to respond to all requests, including natural disaster missions and combat missions into joint force operations overseas.

“This (facility) is one little part in our national defense mosaic that continues to make us the greatest nation in the world,” said General Cross. “It’s an asset to the state of Mississippi and the nation.”

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