New retractable barrier system opens at March

An F/A-18D Hornet from Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, Calif., conducted
the initial certification of the north end retractable barrier at March Air Reserve Base last week. Construction for the south end barrier will begin in late June. (U,S. Air Force photo by Amy Abbott, 452 AMW/PA)

An F/A-18D Hornet from Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, Calif., conducted the initial certification of the north end retractable barrier at March Air Reserve Base last week. Construction for the south end barrier will begin in late June. (U,S. Air Force photo by Amy Abbott, 452 AMW/PA)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- March ARB opened the north end of the runway which now holds a retractable barrier, an instrumental asset to the base's operational performance. The Type H90 system is the first of two to be installed on the flight line and is designed to help aircraft in distress. 

The main benefactors of the new system are the F-16 Fighting Falcons of Detachment-1, 120th Fighter Wing from the Montana Air National Guard, who are currently at March supporting Operation Noble Eagle, a homeland defense mission. According to their detachment commander, Lt. Col. John Jensen, not only do the barriers improve the fighter wing detachment's mission by enhancing the safety of the pilots and their aircraft, they also benefit the other flying squadrons occupying March Field. They no longer have to avoid landing on or going over a raised cable and having the cables recessed extends the length of the runway. 

The March ARB runway is used by KC-135 Stratotankers, C-17 Globemaster IIIs, F-16s and a variety of other civilian airliners. Having this new retractable barrier also expands March Field's abilities to accommodate an even larger assortment of aircraft. 

According to Colonel Jensen, the new retractable barrier enables March to be listed as an emergency divert with both departure and approach end barrier support to all tail hook equipped fighters. Having both ends available at a moment's notice, as opposed to just one end strung at a time -- which is the case on many runways, means that aircraft coming from either direction can reroute to the base if needed. 

This is of particular importance due to March Field's location and the air traffic between Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, Calif., and Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. 

"Having the barrier makes us fully operational and opens the door to more opportunities for March," said 452nd Air Mobility Wing Commander Brig. Gen. James Melin. "With this new asset to our flight line, there are no barriers to what type of missions we can take on."

On June 7, an F/A-18D Hornet fighter jet from Miramar flew here to conduct the initial certification of the new system. The system has to have an initial certification with an aircraft going a minimum speed of 85 knots and having a minimum weight of 30,000 pounds, after which an annual certification has to be conducted to make sure the system still functions. 

"It went about as perfect as we could want," said Colonel Jensen. "The Marine Corps unit was nice enough to come up at the start of one of their missions and take the trap here. That's the terminology they use when they take the trap, or land, on a carrier. Their aircraft are stressed for continuous barrier engagements for conducting carrier landings and do this on a daily basis. Air Force fighters are designed to utilize their tail hook only in an emergency situation to save the aircraft."

Previously, the flight line here had a permanently strung cable system called a BAK-12 that was not retractable and the normal configuration was to only have the north end raised. Perpetually having the cable on the runway was a necessity to the fighter pilots in case of crisis, such as brake failure, engine failure or any other type of emergency situation, but it was also a nuisance to the other aircraft that use the space. Running over or landing on the cable often caused it to break, which incurred financial damages in the form of a new cable and the manpower to fix it, as well as making it inoperable for the jets to use during that time. 

When broken, a cable costs approximately $3,100 to fix; a new set of tapes, which are attached to the reeling mechanism that slows the aircraft down, would run over $12,000 and about 25 hours of manpower was used each time. Additionally, each time an aircraft went over the cable, mechanics were required to inspect it for damages.

"The retractable barrier system is a great acquisition," said Christopher Davis, airfield operations manager for the 452nd Operations Support Squadron. "It provides huge benefits to the fighter community. When completely installed we will be capable of raising barriers in whatever configuration is required on a moment's notice. That capability alone may ultimately save a fighter pilot's life or an airframe." 

The system should also lower maintenance costs, Mr. Davis said, because the gear and cable should remain in better condition with less damage to the system, runway and aircraft. 

With the retractable Type H90 system, there is one cable in place at each end of the flight line as opposed to the sole BAK-12 system that was at the south end. This increases safety measures by giving the fighter pilots a barrier for their landing and their take off. The original standing barrier on the north end has been converted to the new system and is operational. 

The Type H90 barrier is held by rubber attachments called grommets and is recessed inside a trough when in the down position. When the barrier needs to be used, the tower simply throws a switch which sends a signal causing the barrier to rotate itself up. The cable is exposed and raised, being held by rubber pucks that stick out and hold the cable off the ground. The pucks are cut on the top at an angle so that when a fighter aircraft's tail hook snatches it, the cable comes up from the trough and right out of the rubber pucks to slow the aircraft down. 

"Previously, I would have to take off rolling over a barrier and not have the safety of a departure end barrier," said Colonel Jensen. "Now, having a retractable barrier available 24/7 at the flick of a switch, the fighter aircraft will never have to take off over a raised barrier, will always have a departure end barrier and, as soon as they are airborne, with another flip of a switch, the entire runway goes back to normal operations for all the heavy aircraft." 

The system, which had been in the works for three years, was validated by the U.S. Northern Command and 1st Air Force at Tyndall AFB, Fla. One of NORTHCOM's primary missions is the protection of America's homeland. 

Mr. Davis said Colonel Jensen was pivotal in the project being funded. 

"The biggest obstacle to this project has always been getting the money to do it. It was always too low on the funding list to happen. Without his intervention and support, the project would probably have never come to fruition." 

After receiving approval for the funding, Colonel Jensen went through Eglin AFB, Fla., where he found an open Air Force contract for the Type H90 barrier. The standard retractable barrier is the BAK-14 but it was undergoing changes at the time and had not been certified for certain types of fighter aircraft, so the Type H90 was purchased through the French company Aerazur, part of the Zodiac group. 

Once delivered to the base, the installation of the system was contracted out to the local construction company Stronghold, which had recently completed the base's photovoltaic array project. As part of the contract, the French manufacturers came to March to observe and give input to Stronghold as well as help train mechanics who will maintain the Type H90 barrier. 

Construction was structured to minimize the impact on the base's flying operation and will begin on the barrier at the south end in late June and take approximately six weeks to complete. 

The bottom line, according to Colonel Jensen, is this new retractable barrier system allows complete mission support to all the numerous aircraft that utilize March Field. 

"I think folks have somewhat known the benefits, but now that one is physically being installed and people can see it, I think the advantages are becoming much more apparent."