FORT STEWART, Ga. — Strong gusts of wind whipped across the small, largely grass-covered clearing surrounded on all sides by towering pine trees, as uniformed soldiers and airmen worked tirelessly to transform it.
An olive green Air Force steamroller rolled across cleared land, packing down dirt as two brown bulldozers pushed hundreds of pounds of earth 40 yards ahead of it Friday morning.
By the end of the week, that dirt strip will be fully compacted, stretching about 4,700 feet long and 90 feet wide. In March, massive military aircraft will land on it, halting as instantaneously as 98-foot, 155,000-pound planes are capable of — a crucial skill known to C-130 pilots as the combat landing.
Since opening construction earlier this week, about 25 civil engineering soldiers and airmen from the New Mexico Army and Air National Guard have cleared the long overrun airstrip on northwestern Fort Stewart near Camp Oliver.
Exactly how long it's been since the Army has used the Remagen Drop Zone wasn't known by the people who headed its revitalization program, but everyone agreed it's been well over a decade.
While Coastal Georgia is home to a vast array of military training grounds for all of the Armed Forces branches, it lacked a dirt airstrip where C-130 pilots could practice short-field — or combat — landings, said Air Force Col. Todd Freesemann, the commander of the Georgia Air National Guard's Savannah Combat Readiness Training Center.
"We were really looking for an area where we could do a dirt landing with the C-130s and have a combination drop zone/landing zone for our exercises," Freesemann said. "Pilots haven't been able to practice that skill in an ideal location like this in many years here."
With the CRTCs largest training operation — Global Guardian, which will include about 40 National Guard units from 26 states — coming up in March, Freesemann and his staff decided to try to find such an airstrip. Already familiar with Remagen from his days as an Army officer at Fort Stewart, Freesemann secured the proper clearance and was assured the airstrip could be revitalized even after years of neglect.
"What this gives us is a close-by landing zone so we can do a combination drop zone/landing zone here. When the 165th Airlift Wing picks up some jumpers, they're going to be able to actually drop those jumpers on this drop zone and then they're going to be able to land, pick them up and take them back."
It also allows pilots to perfect a skill often used in combat, said veteran C-130 pilot Air Force Lt. Col. D.J. Spisso, of the Georgia Air National Guard's Savannah-based 165th Airlift Wing.
"It makes a huge difference when you're doing this on dirt — when you deploy, these airstrips are going to be dirt or gravel, something like that — instead of on concrete," Spisso said. "The first time a pilot does this kind of landing, it's scary, so it can really get to you. So, this asset is going to be really big, important for us around here."
For the New Mexico Army and Air National Guard units, constructing the airway was an opportunity for them to train on their specialty, said Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Benton, the commander of the 210th Red Horse Squadron that teamed with the 92nd Engineer Company to complete the airstrip.
Engineering units like his build similar landing zones in combat theatres such as Afghanistan. Practicing in the U.S. without the threat of attack, Benton said, is a rare opportunity.
"We're here for two weeks, and these guys are working very hard," he said. "For us, this is training. This is an opportunity for us to come out here to Georgia and practice what it is we do, and give these folks something they really needed."
Freesemann said not only will the airstrip be useful for the CRTC and the 165th Airlift Wing, Army troops at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield will get valuable training because of its availability, too.
"At the end of the day, we're going to have a great landing zone that this entire area is going to be able to use from Fort Stewart, the Combat Readiness Training Center, Townsend Bombing Range," Freesemann said. "It's just one more great air and, really, land asset we have here in (the Coastal Georgia) area for our military to use to train."