Flying High

Dover Air Force Base undergoes its first major renovation since it was built. The improvements also give airmen a lift.

The new air freight terminal at Dover Air
Force Base opened in October 2007.

Looks like today’s tire day,” says 1st Lt. Christine Sukach.

What appears to be 100 tires or more are piled beneath a banner bearing the initials JIB, meaning their destination is Djibouti, Africa. As Major Michael P. Riley explains the operations here at Dover Air Force Base’s new air freight terminal, I wonder if he knows that saying Djibouti (you know, Ja-booty) is wearing on the intimidation factor of his military garb. Seriously.

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In fact, by the end of a tour of the $79.5 million facility, one might begin to feel it’s downright homey—for the Department of Defense’s largest air freight operation in the world, that is.

Because military lingo sometimes has a way of dismantling civilians, it’s best to be precise about what’s going on here. The aerial cargo port is essentially a giant post office for military equipment and supplies. To imagine a view from a blimp, picture a giant warehouse with military aircraft situated on either side. One side is reserved for deliveries, while the other has planes poised for loading up.

Cargo-loaded aircraft arrive from defense distribution sites in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas and California. Team Dover will then ship that cargo to locations like Baghdad, Balad, and Al Asad, Iraq.

Precipitating the construction of this new building was a February 2003 winter storm that left more than 2 feet of snow on the base. The wooden roof caved in over two bays of the 50-year-old aerial cargo port, now described by Riley, in retrospect, as “an old supply warehouse.” The new building is, of course, a supply warehouse as well, but it’s just too nice to call it that.

New housing units should be complete early next year.

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The damaged port was functional, yet in poor condition. U.S. senators Joe Biden and Tom Carper were active in securing funding for the new terminal, which officially began processing cargo on October 13.

The new facilities make Dover’s role more paramount in current and future military operations.

“If we spent $79 million on a 355,000-square-foot facility, this building will be around for eons,” says Riley.

As of January, Dover Air Force Base and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey are the primary aerial ports for cargo headed to Afghanistan and Iraq, a reassignment from Charleston, South Carolina, that will save taxpayers more than $40.3 million a year.

The old building seemed to just make it under the if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it rule, so the new terminal’s positive attributes include those duh improvements you’d expect to make after 50 years of running a business. Whereas supplies were previously organized “like a pile of spaghetti,” says Riley, the cargo is now arranged carefully in aisles so spacious that you suddenly crave a grocery cart.

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Plus, there’s ambient lighting and a temperature-controlled environment to enhance the day-to-day experience of 436th Airlift Wing personnel at work.

Then there are the state-of-the-art technological innovations designed specifically for moving cargo, which explain why there are many more tires than people.

Airman 1st Class Ruben Auer isn’t doing much heavy lifting, though he’s responsible for moving cargo all day. In fact, he’d make those poor dads on college move-in weekends weep. He supervises as packages are transferred from the sensored scale on his left side onto the terminal’s cargo monorail, which will convey them outside to be loaded onto aircraft. He accomplishes all this while sitting on a stool in front of a computer.

Auer, of Rhode Island, says anyone could do it, “as long as you can work with Windows.”

A member of the 436th Security Force Squadron
opens a traffic lane to inspect incoming personnel.

A few steps away, Department of Defense civilian Perry Bratcher monitors the sorting and handling of precious cargo, from the hazardous to the perishable. A walk-in refrigerator stores blood, donated by Air Force members, to be sent to the Middle East. From January through October 2007, 78,000 units of blood, weighing more than 64 tons, were processed at Dover.

“I love my job,” says Bratcher. In a time of war, he says, “There’s all the more reason to do it well.”

The air freight terminal is just one of about 40 construction projects underway at Dover Air Force Base. It’s a hefty investment of $465 million dollars in a short period, largely because facilities have gone without renovations for almost 60 years.

Team Dover’s mission has four components: safely fix and fly aircraft; prepare and deploy people; move cargo; and return America’s fallen heroes with dignity, honor and respect. With the “move cargo” component already well advanced by the new port, other projects span the four mission areas.

Civil Engineering Squad Commander Lt. Col. Sherry Brown reports that 768 new housing units should be complete in February 2009. The project includes demolishing 1,400 old homes. More than 200 old units will remain.

“New housing is a huge bonus to making our airmen happy while they’re living at Dover,” says Brown. “If our airmen are happy, we’re better able to carry out our mission.”

All things considered, the base will have 980 new (or almost new) homes for airmen and their families when the project is finished.

John Sclesky, a civilian engineer, says, “The housing project is well received by the airmen, as it brings them into the 21st century with living conditions.” Still, you might have to twist a few arms to get Team Dover to pick its most anticipated construction. “We’re all eagerly awaiting all of these projects.”

The base broke ground on a new $15.6 million
air traffic control facility in January. The facility
is expected to open in 2009.

Sclesky, a 1974 grad of the University of Delaware, touts a complete re-build of one of the base’s runways as a major effort. (The base has only two.) The initiative comes with a lot of support from Delaware’s congressional delegation, he says, similar to the air freight terminal. Sclesky says both projects will “improve productivity and ensure longevity” for the base. The runway should be complete by September.

A few highlights of the remaining projects include:

• Installing a C-17 flight simulator for training airmen. Dover started working with C-17 aircraft last year.

• A new youth center will triple the size of the current facility. It will expand the capacity for after-school programs that serve Air Force families.

• A chapel center, virtually untouched since 1956, will get updated spaces for worship, fellowship and counseling services.

Renovating has a certain aura about it. There’s some consistency to the spirit of expansion. Whether you’re adding a back porch, planning a new wing to an elementary school, or celebrating the opening of a new air freight terminal in Dover, there’s pride in what has been—and hope for what will be.

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