MED facilitating improvements at Sather Air Base

Middle East District
Published Jan. 21, 2010

The U.S. Air Force, Middle East District, Gulf Region District, and several stakeholders are collaborating to significantly improve airfield functionality and safety at Sather Air Base in Iraq.

The Corps of Engineers is about three-quarters of the way through a $30 million construction contract – called airfield pavements – that’s being completed in phases over 15 months to support Air Force operations in Iraq.

The airfield pavements project is phased to “allow continual use of the airfield during construction,” according to Maj. John Volcheck, chief, AFCENT/AFFOR (Air Forces Central Command/Air Force Forces Command) Iraq Construction Management Office. “This is important in maintaining full mission capability for all forces.”

In June the contractor completed the first stage of this work – rehabilitation of a 10,000-foot runway, which was immediately opened to air traffic. The rehabilitation project also included repairing taxiways, ramps, and aprons for the Air Force’s 447th Air Expeditionary Group based at Sather Air Base.

The 447th AEG provides aerial port, command and control of the military runway, base operating support, combat Airmen and combat medical support. It also provides airlift, supplies, and delivery of forces and materials within the Baghdad area.

On average, Sather Air Base transports over 350,000 passengers and 150,000 short tons of cargo per year, relying on an airfield that does not shut down. The improvements will help prevent hazards that could cause a runway closure, limiting mission capability and adversely affecting logistical support to all forces in Iraq. USACE photo.
Sather Air Base, a component of Victory Base Complex, and the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) sit on the same airfield. According to an Air Force release, “the entire airfield belongs to BIAP, but functionally it is divided into two sides – the civil or airport side and the military or Sather side.”


Sather leadership and BIAP officials worked together to make sure airfield operations continued throughout the military runway’s construction period. They did that by allowing both military and civilian aircraft to take off and land on the civilian airport runway for nearly six months while contractors repaired the Sather runway, the release said.

Runway work included replacement and repair of concrete panels, joint repairs, rubber residue removal, and runway striping and painting. The new runway provides increased capability for the Air Force as well, accommodating heavy aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster. The previous runway was not designed for heavy aircraft.

Remaining phases of work include ramp repairs for various users, taxiway repairs, and helicopter ramp repairs.

A critical project

The aircraft pavements project is critical for the U.S. Air Force.

“When the Air Force has to close down portions of the runway to accommodate construction, their operations are strained. That in turn puts pressure on the project team to perform,” said Claude Crowder, MED project manager. “Having served in Iraq for three-and-a-half years, I understand the urgency that comes from being at an expeditionary site in a war zone. They’ve got to have it now. Their safety and their readiness are at risk.”

“Sather Air Base is one of the busiest aerial ports in Iraq, moving military personnel and cargo in and out of the country at a tremendously high operational tempo,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Watson, 447th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron Engineering Flight Officer in Charge.

“On average, Sather Air Base transports over 350,000 passengers and 150,000 short tons of cargo per year, relying on an airfield that does not shut down,” Watson continued. “If this project were not implemented, hazards could cause the close of the runway, thereby limiting mission capability and adversely affecting logistical support to all forces in Iraq.”

Watson said the airfield was dilapidated. It had not been maintained and several iterations of expedient repairs resulted in massive joint and concrete failure. Foreign object debris, such as loose concrete and pebbles, became problematic on the airfield. Serious damage results when a jet engine ingests debris.

Re-phasing the project

Initially, the project had 14 phases, and as construction commenced the team recognized it could gain efficiencies by combining and resizing some phases, according to Webster Shipley, program manager, Victory Area Office, Gulf Region District. Volcheck said that the team - the Air Force’s Construction Management Office and Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, the 447 Expeditionary Operations Squadron, the Corps’ Gulf Region District and Middle East District, and the contractor – jointly developed the 10-phase plan.

“The work was re-phased so that complete taxiways and runways are repaired in single phases requiring the contractor to ‘touch’ that particular segment of the airfield only once,” said Lou Martinez, MED construction manager.

“Our goal was to better align the repair work so that the segments closed for repairs would have minimal impact on the Air Force, would keep the contractor from revisiting that part of the airfield a second time, and would allow the user to reclaim his operational area,” Martinez continued. “We focused on decreasing customer downtime while increasing the contractor’s efficacy.” “We worked with all the tenants to develop a phasing plan for airfield construction that minimizes impact to their operations,” Watson said. “Through teamwork, we’ve been able to complete the work on schedule while facilitating all users’ mission requirements. This construction project has forged a tighter relationship among the U.S. government agencies and a deeper understanding of the Iraqi Air Force.”

As the repair work was completed, the team recognized the need for an upgraded painting and marking system.

“We incorporated an ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) marking system into the project,” Volcheck said. All the runway markings are now in sync with the standards of ICAO, the U.N. agency governing civil aviation. While the new runway markings certainly improve safety at the airfield, they also will facilitate building capacity for the Iraqi Air Force and the future movement of international personnel and cargo, Volcheck added.

Managing communications and change

“Working on an airfield has stringent construction constraints that must be managed and coordinated on a daily basis,” Watson said.


“Being flexible and able to adapt to an ever-changing mission and operational demands are essential. The key players making the effort successful have learned to be pliable and quick on their feet. Open communication between all parties is vital to develop area use agreements, work plans, and aircraft taxi routes, and it is indispensable for keeping everybody safe.”

The project impacted landing, taxiing, and parking surfaces and affected every single airfield user from aircraft operations to airfield drivers to logistical operations. Maintaining the delicate interface between construction work and operational airfield requirements fell to the 447 Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron’s Tech. Sgt. Dustin Thompson, who worked hand in hand with the 447 Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron to mitigate operational impacts.

In terms of airfield projects, Thompson said, “It doesn’t get any bigger than this. With a construction project of this magnitude, you cannot take your focus off the long term impacts as well as the daily issues that arise unexpectedly.”

Watson agreed. “With helicopters buzzing about and C-5 jet engines firing up next to excavators working the concrete, this construction site is unlike anywhere in the world.”

Change Management

Change management has been vital to keeping this project on track, Martinez said.

“The change management process takes what the government contractually ordered and puts the real footprint on it,” he said. “It allows us to examine what we need to change to make the customer’s requirements fit within the scope of the contract.

“In short, we use the process to outline the work requirements, where we are, what needs to be changed, and then schedule the follow-up meetings to stay ahead. We can issue letters of technical direction that outline changes and are a good tool so long as we remain within the scope. And as long as the changes don’t affect the contractor’s cost and time, we can avoid a contract modification. That time savings is important, and it keeps every action from becoming a burden on the contracting officer.

“Having good interface between the customer, the Corps, and the contractor means getting the team in front of problems or issues rather than chasing them,” Martinez said.

The Corps’ Project Management Business Process doctrine states that change management is one of the most important activities undertaken by the project delivery team to successfully deliver products and services to the customer. It is the process by which proposed changes are evaluated, agreed upon, documented, and implemented.

“Using this process, we identified clear standards for what the contractor needs to accomplish to avoid any work stoppage,” Martinez said. “In a contingency environment with hard deadlines for project delivery, we can’t afford work stoppage. The airfield has to be delivered on time or mission and lives will be at risk.”

The team - the Air Force’s Construction Management Office and Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, the 447 Expeditionary Operations Squadron, the Corps’ Gulf Region District and Middle East District, and the contractor – jointly developed a 10-phase plan for the project. USACE photo.
A MED contract award


The Middle East District awarded the airfield pavements task order contract to KBR on Sept. 30, 2008, under the indefinite delivery/indefinite quality contracts for use in the U.S. Central Command area of operations.

In many respects, the airfield pavements project is a typical reach back project, Crowder said, fraught with project delivery challenges from thousands of miles away and involving a multitude of stakeholders.

“We handled the pre-award activities, designed the package, and awarded the contract,” Crowder said. “We maintain contracting officer authority here and handle any changes or modifications to the contract. The Gulf Region District’s roles are to survey the construction progress day to day and provide quality assurance. Each of us works with a variety of customers and counterparts to get the work done.” KBR is scheduled to complete the remaining phases of work in January 2010, which include repairs for ramps used by the Army Materiel Command and the Joint Military Mail Terminal, along with other taxiway and helicopter ramp repairs.

Completion of the airfield pavements project also benefits the training mission. “Much of the training that the 447th and 321st ITAM (Iraqi Training and Advisory Mission) provide to the Iraqi Air Force would be severely hindered if the ramps, taxiways, and runways were a hazard to the pilots and aircraft,” Watson said.

The U.S. Air Force said that eventually it will turn the use of its portion of the airfield back to the Iraqi government.