Shemya Island runway gets asphalt award

Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Runway 10-28 on Shemya Island has won the equivalent of an asphalt Academy Award for its longevity.

For nearly 60 years, the 10,000-foot runway at the Air Force's Eareckson Air Station on the western end of the Aleutian Chain has been punished by some of the world's worst weather, earthquakes and heavy use by military aircraft.

Its durability has earned it the Asphalt Pavement Alliance's Perpetual Pavement Award.

The Shemya Island airfield is the first time Alaska pavement has been recognized for the award, said Ray Brown, director of the National Center for Asphalt Technology at Alabama's Auburn University.

The airfield has long been used by the military to monitor missile tests in Russia and as a refueling stop for U.S. war planes. Airplanes weighing as much as 300,000 pounds routinely land on the runway, Brown said.

The tiny island's location, with the Bering Sea on one side and the Northern Pacific on the other, is one of the worst places on Earth to build anything, Brown said. And weather on Shemya is brutal, even by Alaska standards.

''It's the worst weather I've ever worked in,'' said Brown, who worked on the runway in the 1970s while employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Earthquakes have rocked the island repeatedly over the years. A 1965 earthquake in the nearby Rat Islands measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale caused cracks in Shemya's asphalt runway and created crevasses some 50 feet deep.

The Army Corps of Engineers in 1967 did major rehabilitation work to the runway. Dickerson Construction, a Lower 48 asphalt paving company, put a 2-inch overlay on the runway in 1976. Only minor maintenance has been done on the runway since, Brown said.

What makes the Shemya runway so durable is largely unknown, said Brown. Usually asphalt lasts only 10 years at most in Alaska before needing major rehabilitation, he said.

Compacted sand from the island's dunes was used for the initial strip built in 1943, and several layers of crushed aggregate and asphalt have been added over the years.

Brown said work done in the mid-1970s to the runway featured double the number of heavy rollers, which probably contributed to the runway's longevity.

A federal evaluation of the runway in 2001 said the tarmac was still in ''good'' to ''very good'' condition.

Lt. Col. Mark Tissi, commander of the U.S. Air Force's 611th Civil Engineer Squadron, said the runway has served the country well, although it could use a little work to bring it back to perfect.

''There is a need for some cosmetic repairs, but it still supports daily landings and launchings needed at that site,'' Tissi said.

The runway, first constructed during World War II under an accelerated wartime program, is one of seven pavement projects chosen for the annual award. Each or the winning pavements had to have been constructed at least 35 years ago, according to the asphalt organization's nominating criteria.

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