Expect to see more C-17s flying at night for a while

The temporary closure of a runway in Moses Lake will mean more Air Force jets flying the night skies of Pierce County.

Contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin working Monday on Grant County International Airport’s “assault strip” – called such because it is reinforced to handle C-17 Globemaster III cargo jets landing at a steep angle.

Crews from McChord Air Force Base and other installations use the runway for nighttime landings. But with the runway’s monthlong closure, some of those training flights will land at McChord. Other Air Force bases across the Western United States will accept some of the flights as well.

The actual number of extra flights coming into the base hasn’t yet been determined, a spokesman for the 62nd Airlift Wing said Wednesday.

“We’re looking at other options,” Tech. Sgt. Oshawn Jefferson said. “We’re looking at sending some of these flights as far away as Wyoming. So we don’t have a number right now.”

The 13,500-foot assault strip is the only one of its kind on the West Coast and is used daily by crews from McChord and installations in California, Alaska and Hawaii. Its location in a sparsely populated area of the state makes it ideal for the large cargo jets’ nighttime landings, in which pilots using night-vision goggles steer the plane toward the runway.

Those skills are used daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, where C-17s help supply the American military.

McChord-based units, the most frequent users of the airport, land planes about 8,500 times each year, said Craig Baldwin, the executive manager of the Port of Moses Lake, which operates the airport.

The airport and its five runways are used not only by the U.S. Air Force, but also as a commercial site, testing grounds for The Boeing Co., a training area for Japan Airlines and an alternate site for NASA missions.

The airport is the site of the former Larson Air Force Base, which was shuttered in 1966.

The work should be complete by Sept. 16 and cost more than $1 million. An Idaho-based contractor, LarKor Construction, will perform the work alongside Corps of Engineers employees.

The money for the improvements is part of $1.4 billion earmarked for the Corps of Engineers through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but the renovations have been scheduled for some time.

“It was something that was getting ready to go out to bid,” said Andrea Takash with the Corps of Engineers. “But it got pushed up a few months because of the stimulus funding.”

Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758