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Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield readies thousands of Fort Drum soldiers for deployment


FORT DRUM — Before the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade can begin its mission in Afghanistan, it has to leave the north country from Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, with help from the airfield’s ground crews.

The airfield has supported deployment flights for about 343,000 soldiers since the expansion of a runway from 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet in August 1998 and the opening of the rapid deployment center in February 1999. Before the expansion, deploying soldiers had to travel to Griffiss Air Force Base, Rome.

“Build me two miles of highway and I can drive two miles,” said A. Joe White, chief of the airfield’s aviation division. “Build me two miles of runway, and I can go anywhere in the world.”

The wind swept the tarmac near the center Friday morning as a Boeing 767 operated by North American Airlines touched down on a nearby runway. At the time of the landing, about 60 brigade soldiers could be seen lounging in the center, with hundreds more expected to be bused in within the next few hours to catch the flight.

In addition to the flight, the brigade’s deployment could be noted by the transfer of its Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters to installations such as Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Bragg, N.C.

Back on the runway, a stair truck and a pair of 10,000-gallon fuel trucks lined up to perform work on the plane. However, a scan of the plane indicated the temperature near its back left wheels was too high, prompting a quick call to the post’s Fire Department.

Firefighters arriving a few minutes later found no safety issues during an inspection with the pilot, and allowed the plane’s passengers to get off. The flight had a few hundred Army, Air Force and Navy members arriving from Norfolk, Va., who would get back on the flight that would be heading to Afghanistan with the brigade’s soldiers.

With the scene cleared, the fuel truck pulled up and crew members Jim Cassoni and Dennis McIlroy started loading fuel onto the plane, a process that took about half an hour. Mr. White said all but one of his 53-person staff were retired military personnel.

The plane was scheduled to sit for a few hours before continuing its journey overseas.

Each year, the airfield handles about 190 flights moving large groups of soldiers overseas and to domestic training areas such as the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La., or the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif. Friday morning marked the airfield’s 113th such flight for the year.

With the airfield moving about 24,500 passengers a year, Mr. White said, it has processed about 15,000 passengers thus far in 2013.

“Sometimes it’s just back to back,” Mr. White said. “It ebbs and flows.”

One facet of the airfield’s training resources used by the outgoing brigade was its simulator room. The $250,000 system features several monitors that showed a re-creation of the airfield’s vehicles and layout, down to the painted lines near the hangars.

For brigade soldiers responsible for air traffic work, the simulator is a way to get training time even when the airfield’s tower has reduced traffic load.

“This will be harder work in most cases than when they deploy,” Mr. White said. By shifting weather and lighting, the simulator can be programmed to create a full range of scenarios.

“Your heart rate will go up; your blood pressure will go up,” Mr. White said. “You will get immersed as if you are out there.”

The deployment flight preparation work is but one part of the airfield’s mission. Other abilities of the airfield include monitoring air and range traffic, both for the post and for much of the north country, and serving as a holding area for aircraft during emergencies.

Mr. White said the airfield benefited from its resources and lack of outside encroachment.

“We still have the ability to expand where others don’t,” he said.

The resources of the airfield will be expanded this year, with $95 million in funding to build a new aircraft maintenance hangar and control tower and expand a few standing hangars.

In discussion for the fiscal year 2014 defense budget is a $4.7 million expansion of the hangar used for unmanned MQ-9 Predator drones used by the 174th Attack Wing, Syracuse.

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