Catalina Island gets airport makeover with help from US military

Catalina Island's only airport is getting a major facelift. It's thanks in part to the military, and it benefits the service members as much as it does civilians.

It's a partnership between the Catalina Island Conservancy at the Airport of the Sky and the Marines and the Navy. Dozens of Marines and "Seabees" have taken up residence on the island for the next several months on the Island to work on repairing the aging runway.

The island's rugged terrain presents logistical challenges that also create an invaluable training opportunity for the military.

"The partnership is great because we found that the military had an extreme need," said Tony Budrovich, president of the Catalina Island Conservancy. "They had not built an airport in a long time. It's very important for both humanitarian aid and potentially a military operation to be ready to do that. "

The 3,000-foot-long runway was first built in 1941. It is owned and operated by the Conservancy, a nonprofit. For years, they tried patching the runway at nearly $250,000 a year. But Caltrans inspectors eventually decided it needed a complete repair in order to stay open

"This airstrip came so close to being closed that the conservancy team and the military worked really hard behind the scenes to make this opportunity a reality," Kellie Johnson said. Johnson is the Conservancy Board Chair. "It gives us incredible confidence to know that our troops, if sent into harm's way, that they're skilled and ready to carry out their mission.

The Department of Defense's Innovative Readiness Training program finds ways to match communities' needs with military training opportunities. In this case, more 100 servicemen and women will work six days a week while living on Catalina Island. And 22 miles offshore, it's excellent practice for working in remote locations.

"On our end, it gives us a training opportunity, a much larger area to do some earthwork and concrete construction," said U.S. Marines Captain Nichole Stockham, "And get our Marines a lot of good training."

Kellie Johnson is also president of ACE Clearwater Enterprises, a Torrance-based aerospace manufacturing company. Johnson's company donated $1.5 million toward the repair project as a naming gift for the airfield.

Initially, the military hoped to wrap up this work by late March 2019. With the rainstorms, they are slightly behind schedule but hope to reopen the airport to the public by late spring.