September 8, 2013 12:27:37 AM
William Browning - [email protected]
The longest runway in Mississippi is officially open for business again.
At Columbus Air Force Base on Friday morning, a little more than 100 people stood on one end of the base's 12,000-foot long center runway to watch a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Gov. Phil Bryant was there. So was Mississippi 1st District Congressman Alan Nunnelee and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, along with a handful of other state and local officials. The weather was perfect.
The occasion formally closed a six-month construction project that involved replacing 10,000 feet of old runway with a 10-inch thick, 200-foot wide concrete surface.
The runway was built in 1959 and for years has served as a training ground for student pilots. Less than 20 percent pavement life remained on the asphalt surface prior to beginning the reconstruction project in March, according to base officials.
The $32 million project contract was awarded to Pheba-based Babcock Construction. Project manager John Trumm said that despite more than 40 rain-days removing essentially a month's worth of work, the project was completed on time.
Speaking during the ceremony on Friday, Col. Jim Sears, the 14th Flying Training Wing commander, said while the numbers surrounding the runway project were impressive, what the base has meant to Mississippi and the military "is even more extraordinary."
Sears said more than 12,000 pilots from more than 50 countries began aviation careers on the center runway. They all left tire marks, he said, and "a few rough landings that took their toll" on the runway.
"So today we say farewell to the old and officially re-open the new," he said.
Before the ceremonial ribbon was cut, Bryant told the gathering he had cut ribbons for new industries, sent ships to sea and even announced movies since becoming governor.
"But a runway is something new," he joked, and then he offered a prayer for the safety of future pilots who will take off from, and land, on the new surface.
Wicker said the new runway surface guaranteed that the Mississippi base would continue serving as a training ground for pilots for another 50 years.
"We are committed to making sure we have the infrastructure here at this base to go forward and to meet any challenges we have," he said.
Nunnelee added that the federal government's number one purpose should be to protect the country. The next most important thing, he said, is to make sure those who protect the country "complete their mission and return to their families."
"Columbus Air Force Base, this runway, allow those men and women to have those tools," he said.
While the center runway was closed for construction, the base graduated the same number of pilots in six months that is usually does. Sears said that was due, in part, to the Golden Triangle Regional Airport allowing some of the base's planes and crews to operate out of the civil airport.
After Friday's ceremony, Major Jeff Issgett, the 14th Operations Support Squadron assistant director of operations, flew a T-38C Talon down the runway and then straight up into the sky to mark the re-opening.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.