Airfield assessment teams work behind the scenes for successful operations

by Senior Airman Katherine Holt
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

It is made of 12 members each with a different Air Force specialty code ready to mobilize in 12 hours.

It includes equipment and manpower to conduct landing zone, airfield, air traffic control and site surveys. It is capable of self-sustained operations for 120 hours to assess and report status of organic command and control, communications, ATC, airfield pavements, infrastructure, force protection and overall airfield conditions to combat commanders to determine suitability for mobility combat operations.
It is the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing’s Contingency Response Group Airfield Assessment Team.

“We have everything you would need to go into an airfield, whether it is a contingency environment or a previously utilized airfield, to make sure everything is safe for aircraft to come in,” said Tech. Sgt. Stanley MacDonald, 435th CRG air traffic controller and airfield assessment team member. “Our main goal is to determine if the runway or landing zone can support aircraft, the type of aircraft and how many times an aircraft can land with the ultimate goal of bringing in follow-on forces.”

The team includes an operations commander, a mobility airlift navigator, an airfield operations officer, a civil engineer officer, a logistics readiness officer, security forces, a loadmaster, an air traffic controller, a medic, an airfield manager, a communications specialist and an enlisted engineer.

“We act as USAFE’s 9-1-1,” said Master Sgt. Thomas Franz, 435th CRG contingency airfield manager. “If a contingency arises, whether it be a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation, Humanitarian Relief Operation or any other crisis, planners need to know whether or not an airfield or landing strip can be utilized to open a base.”

The airfield assessment team has three means of insertion to get into an airfield to begin their assessment: airborne, air land and overland. Based on the size and suitability of the landing zone or runway, the assessment process can take anywhere from two to six hours to complete their assessment.

“My primary goal as an airfield manager is the landing surface,” said Franz. “We will make an initial call back once we determine the landing surface is usable.”

Another team member who plays a vital role in determining the suitability of the landing surface is the engineer.  On the surface, a runway may appear suitable to land aircraft, but until the engineer conducts his test to assess the strength of each layer, underneath the asphalt or concrete, there is no way to know how the landing surface will react to an aircraft landing.

“If we land an aircraft like the C-17 without testing the surface it could cause damage to the runway and/or aircraft,” said MacDonald.

During a humanitarian mission, it is essential to know what type of aircraft will be able to land in the area.

“For a humanitarian mission we could be bringing in large quantities of supplies,” said Franz. “And if we know that the landing zone can only hold C-130s, that information plays a big part in the Air Force’s planning process.”

This airfield assessment team has two new capabilities it brings to U.S. Air Forces in Europe: air traffic controllers and their ability to control aircraft on landing zones. In addition, the CRG has personnel who are able to perform landing zone safety officer duties.

“We now have air traffic controllers imbedded in the airfield assessment team. Not only can we assess the runway, but we can bring in aircraft and follow on forces with an air traffic controller,” said MacDonald.

Restrictions in AFIs have limited the CRG’s role as far as landing zones are concerned. A recently granted waiver to an AFI has given air traffic controllers in the CRG the ability to land aircraft on any type of surface. Recently, the team was on an off station training in Spain where they were able to employ this new capability alongside Spanish AF combat controllers.

“In Spain, we were able to use our air traffic controllers to land aircraft on the dirt strip,” said MacDonald. “This was a first for us, USAFE and for the Air Force.”

Partnering with the 37th Airlift Squadron gives the airfield assessment team the opportunity to train and hone their skills and capabilities. Having a flying unit that is not only collocated but also having a mutually beneficial training relationship with that unit is key to the CRG’s mission.

“This past OST gave us the opportunity to not only use our airborne capability, but also gave us the opportunity to conduct an air land infiltration and provide a baseline for future operations,” said Franz. “This is the first time we have practiced the air land insertion and were able to practice it at night utilizing NVGs.”

The team personnel composition is always changing and it is vital that they continue building on the relationship established with the 37th Airlift Squadron
training events like this OST will continue to hone their skills.

“The vision of our leadership has been essential in acquiring the personnel, equipment and training events necessary to build on this capability,” said Franz
“The CRG is a very capable force and is only getting better,” said MacDonald. “What we bring to USAFE and EUCOM, I see it as invaluable. We are excited to be employed whenever that opportunity comes up. We train and train and train so that in the one instance we are needed, we can show our stuff.”