One Airman, Global Impact | IMA leads runway evaluation team to Liberia

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
  • HQ RIO Public Affairs

After six months of flying troops and supplies for Operation United Assistance into Liberia’s only international airport, U.S. Africa Command members feared the heavy transport aircraft had taken a toll on the runway’s decaying, 40-year-old asphalt.

To determine the condition of the tarmac at Roberts International Airport as operations in Liberia came to a close, a special group of Air Force engineers was called in to evaluate the airfield.

The Air Force Civil Engineering Center’s Airfield Pavement Evaluation Team, a small, elite unit of engineers tasked with evaluating the structural integrity of the many Department of Defense airfields around the globe, received notification that their unique services were needed.

While the single-strip international airport in Liberia would be a small project compared to the mammoth military runways they normally deal with, there would be other obstacles the APE team would have to overcome.

Airfield pavements branch chief Maj. Robert C. Rogers, an Air Force Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentee supporting the unit on a full-time basis, led the mission to Liberia. Assignment to the outfit requires years of specialized training, including a master’s of science in civil engineering, with a concentration in geotechnical engineering, and up to a year of on-the-job training. So, it made sense for Rogers, a four-year airfield pavements veteran, to join his organization as an IMA when he left active duty and joined the Reserve in 2014.

The mission to Liberia came on the heels of a five-week mission to Sheppard and Dyess Air Force Bases, Texas. A busy travel schedule is nothing new to the APE Airmen, who are on the road 120 days every year. According to Master Sgt. James Dixon, APE superintendent, active duty and Reserve runways undergo an evaluation every eight years and Air National Guard runways are evaluated every 16 years; a big undertaking for the three evaluation teams the shop can field.

After returning from Texas, the team of four loaded onto a C-17, which had come to their home base at Tyndall AFB, to give them a lift to Africa. After a two day trip that included a crew rest in Senegal, they were on the ground at Roberts.

Rogers said they were particularly excited for this mission because it was outside of their normal rotation and was a way to contribute to a relevant, global cause.

The APE team brought several pieces of specialized equipment to measure the flexibility of the tarmac and to biopsy the insides of the air strip. One piece of equipment they used was the Heavy Weight Deflectometer. This compact-car sized, tow-behind trailer simulates the impact of a cargo plane, weighing up to 250,000 pounds, landing on a runway. Dixon, who is responsible for the HWD, said the machine raises a weighted package to a specified height and then drops it on the runway, while sensors collect data on the flexibility of the surface. They also used a large, water-cooled drill to take six-inch core samples of the runway.

The total-force team faced several unusual challenges during their testing, due to the limited resources available at Roberts IAP. Their first hurdle came when they ran out of fuel for their equipment.

"Typically, at U.S. bases, we have access to fuel," but that wasn’t the case at Roberts, said Dixon. "We actually had to go out into the local area and buy jars of gas from a roadside stand for about $3 each."

Once they had fuel, they also needed water to keep the coring drill cool. To do this, they worked with the local fire department, trading meals-ready-to-eat for a couple hundred gallons of water from the fire truck.

Another obstacle the team dealt with was an unpredictable flight schedule. With only one runway to service flights in and out of the country, a complete closure of the airport was not possible. Rogers said they knew when U.S. planes would arrive, but United Nations planes would arrive unexpectedly and the team would have ten to 15 minutes to fill their six-inch core-sample holes with fresh asphalt, pack up their equipment, and clear the runway.

"It was a little frustrating," he said.

In addition to the job-related stressors, the evaluation team also had to deal with the psychological aspect of being so close to the EVD. Rogers said deploying without weapons to a location without the physical threat of an enemy firing at you, but where instead you had to worry about what you could and could not touch, was weird at first, though the anxiety abated as time went on.

Rogers expected the testing to take about two days, and the team counted on being in Liberia for about five. However, the C-17 that was taking them home ran into some delays, which kept them in country for two weeks.

They didn’t let this time go to waste, though. Once the testing was complete, Rogers evaluated the data and wrote his report. After analyzing all of the data, he determined Operation United Assistance flights did not impact the runway negatively. Furthermore, the APE team’s findings showed that previous studies of the runway overestimated the amount of repairs needed to keep the airfield operational.

"Our mission was to document the end condition of the runway following operations," said Rogers. "We found out that the Air Force did not cause additional damage to the airfield. Our structural testing showed that the underlying layers are stronger than previously reported and don’t need a full overhaul."

The evaluation report showed fewer repairs needed, meaning less down time for the runway and a cost savings of over $10 million for the Liberian government.

Rogers added that they actually left the runway in better condition than when operations began, since his team used leftover asphalt they brought for filling in the core-sample holes to fill craters left from Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s.

With the report finalized and the good news about the runway in hand, Rogers, Dixon and the team’s two other enlisted Airmen caught a Blackhawk helicopter ride to Monrovia, where they briefed the U.S. Ambassador, Ms. Deborah R. Malac, on their findings.

Reflecting on the mission, Rogers said he ranks the mission to Liberia as one of the most impactful of his career.

Dixon echoed the sentiments of his boss.

"Taking the data and going to the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia and giving her information she can use, it’s pretty satisfying."

IMAs are Air Force Reservists assigned to active-duty units and government agencies. They are managed by Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization, located at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, and serve over 50 separate major commands, combatant commands and government agencies.

Unlike traditional Reservists, who are assigned to Reserve units that regularly perform duty together, IMAs work with their active-duty supervisors to create a custom duty schedule that helps their unit meet mission requirements. 

Editor's note: One Airman, Global Impact is a feature series highlighting the many roles Individual Reservists play in today's Air Force.