Airfield management, dirt boys: Manage a concrete weapon

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cory W. Bush
  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
In the center of Aviano Air Base sits the most important 8,539-foot stretch of concrete south of the Alps -- the flightline.

The 98 year old flightline is the backbone of the 31st Fighter Wing’s mission, just like the F-16 Fighting Falcons it carries. Both have to be maintained and secured to operate correctly. While maintenance teams tend to the jets, two other agencies similarly tend to the flightline.

Airmen from 31st Operations Support Squadron Airfield Management perform many duties, but two are more prevalent than the others: monitoring the flightline and removing wildlife that gather around it. Both are done to make sure everything operates safely.

“If we didn’t secure the flightline from wildlife and debris it wouldn’t be safe for flights,” said Airman 1st Class Justin McCartney, 31st OSS Airfield Management operations shift lead. “If a bird flew into an aircraft, multiple lives could be at risk.”

In order to make the flightline safe, McCartney and his teammate’s scan every inch of the runway in daily inspections to diagnose safety risks. Once identified, airfield management can request help from The 31st Civil Engineer Squadron to repair the problem.

“We wouldn’t be here without this flightline because our sole mission rest upon it,” said Senior Airman Alexander Schutte, 31st Civil Engineer Squadron Pavements and Equipment operator or “dirt boy.” “It's a long flightline, but someone's got to take care of it.”

This is where Schutte and the rest of the dirt boys come into play. An F-16 may contend with airborne combatants, but its pilot isn’t alone in facing adversaries. The dirt boys battle against the elements to keep the flightline operational.

The dirt boys start their day sweeping the 17-million-square-foot flightline for debris. During this process, they find cracks and spools – a spool is where two pieces of concrete meet but one side rises above the other. Last year alone, they sealed more than 1,000 feet of cracks and spools.

Without Airmen maintaining the flightline, any defect could result in aircraft damage or worse, human injuries.

“Maintaining and repairing flightline damage is a top priority for us,” said Schutte. “We have to get out there as quick as possible because we don’t want the flightline to be the reason flights stop or the mission is put on hold.”

When airfield management dispatches the dirt boys, it takes them less than an hour to respond, assess and fix most issues. These rapid response moments make the job worthwhile for Schutte.

“I love being a dirt boy,” said Schutte. “There’s something about getting your hands dirty and feeling that sense of accomplishment once a job’s done, especially when you hear the roar of an F-16 flying by.”

All of this allows 510th and 555th Fighter Squadron F-16s to perform three to four flights daily, and visiting aircraft to fulfill their mission.

“The flightline is a good example of the broad effort it takes to bring fighter airpower to bear,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Freeborn, 510th FS commander. “Taking off and landing at nearly 200 mph requires a perfectly maintained flightline. We rely on the flightline to be basically perfect to allow us to focus our effort on finding targets and avoiding threats. Fighter pilots have implicit trust in the Airmen who maintain the flightline ... our lives depend on it.”