Wright Army Airfield officials said Thursday the airport has been quiet over recent years, but they’re bracing for an increase in military traffic later this year.
“We know from the old days, when it’s stateside operation, this place is busy, and we’re going to see that soon,” Airfield Division Chief Jack Dibrell said during the quarterly joint-management board meeting of military and civilian leaders who oversee the airfield and its civilian counterpart, MidCoast Regional Airport.
Among the activities to move to the post later this year is an aerial vehicle, or drone, unit that will train with nine vehicles called Grey eagles.
Georgia Public Broadcasting this week reported that 3rd Infantry Division Lt. Col. Al Garnica said the program also will bring 128 additional soldiers to operate the vehicles, which are aimed at providing real-time intelligence.
A $40 million facility is under construction to house the vehicles, and other military construction projects will have a short-term affect on civilian traffic flow.
Fort Stewart/HAAF air space officer Brian Mixon gave an overview of traffic counts.
“Military traffic has been slow,” Mixon said. “The Combat Aviation Brigade is deployed now, which is our primary customer on the military side.”
He said several groups will train at the airfield before summer.
“Since 9/11, the CAB has been gainfully employed, you know, the Combat Aviation Brigade is based out of Hunter Army Airfield, but their primary training area is here. But I will say over the last eight, 10 years, they come in and out from theater from Afghanistan and Iraq, and they refit the aircraft and they get prepared to go ahead. You don’t see a lot of activity out here on Fort Stewart.”
To prepare for the CAB’s return, the airport has invested in more air traffic controllers, he said.
Once the drones arrive, they will fly within restricted military airspace — a topic that also came up as Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas alluded to the Defense Department’s intention to create an airspace corridor from Marines Corps Air Station Beaufort south to the Townsend Bombing Range.
“They envision this whole corridor, from Beaufort, Fort Stewart to Townsend, as one single chain, and that was discussed to us by the FAA and by the political people up there,” Thomas said.
But, the mayor said, Long County has opposed expansion of the Townsend range because of the loss of property tax revenue.
“The critical issue is that unless we solve the problem by the tax issue, they’re going to have to take that land by imminent domain, and nobody wants to do that,” Thomas said. “The cost is miniscule when you look at the total operations that we have there… So we need you all at the table in the discussion.”
He asked the military air traffic experts to inform congressional delegates about the project’s significance.
Dibrell said he was aware of the issue, and Mixon said he attends meetings of a South Carolina/Georgia military installation conglomerate board that tracks regional issues.
“Those folks are talking about it from a political standpoint. They don’t really understand the aircraft or the air space… Congressman Kingston wants to hold a meeting with all of the people involved some time this year,” Thomas said.
The group also discussed capital improvements to the airport, specifically two runway projects. Both lack funding.
The military’s priority is renovating one runway that is usable but needs repairs. Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown said some state DOT funding has paid for preliminary engineering for the renovation.
Civilian leaders favor another project to extend a runway to 6,500 feet, funded partially by the FAA and Georgia DOT. It would also require local money and for other agencies to cover costs associated with military-specific operations.
The civilian leaders met after the joint meeting. Driving their discussion was whether the county, city and development authority have the funding for infrastructure to cover the local match for a taxiway extension. That could impact on decisions of a potential industrial client with whom the board has a confidentiality agreement.
According to the proposal, the local share would be $1.7 million, divided among the three participating entities. However, should the board make accommodations for the industry, the costs could increase.