306th FTG unveils new sailplane landing area

Lt. Col Brad Roller explains the benefits of the new sailplane landing area from the control tower at the Air Force Academy March 20, 2012. Roller commands the 94th Flying Training Squadron, an Air Education and Training Command tenant unit here. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Lt. Col Brad Roller explains the benefits of the new sailplane landing area from the control tower at the Air Force Academy March 20, 2012. Roller commands the 94th Flying Training Squadron, an Air Education and Training Command tenant unit here. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Officials with the 306th Flying Training Group here unveiled a vast sailplane landing area made from artificial turf in a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday.

High winds cut the outdoor portion of the ceremony short but did not dampen officials' enthusiasm as they applauded the completion of the 1.35-million-square-foot landing area, which is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Col. Christopher Plamp, the 306th FTG commander, outlined the reasons why the $3.6 million landing area was crucial for the group's mission: safety, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability.

"With the grass area, it was hard to tell where you were supposed to land," Plamp said. Markers on the astroturf will outline landing and parking areas. The markers will also allow cadets to practice lining up for landings the same way they would in powered aircraft, allowing for more effective and more advanced training.

In terms of efficiency, the turf will reduce the amount of time required to recover and restage aircraft and will allow the group to land more sailplanes at the same time, Plamp said.

The smooth turf will also improve aircraft sustainability, said Maj. Mike Mulligan, assistant director of operations for the 306th Operations Support Squadron.

"Vibration from landing impact and landing roll are prime causes of material failure in our new fiberglass and carbon-fiber gliders," Mulligan said. "The aviation turf is a state-of-the-art surface material that reduces the wear and tear from vibration during landing."

The Engineering Mechanics Department and the Center for Aircraft Structural Life Extension performed a study on the sailplane landing area a few years back, said Scott Bowshot, a civil engineer with the Academy's 10th Civil Engineer Squadron. The purchase of 22 TG-16 gliders in 2011 triggered the turf project.

"The findings in the report directly attributed overstress and fatigue on the sailplanes due to the native vegetation in the (landing area)," Bowshot said. "If the Air Force did not invest in an improved landing surface, the new glider fleet would be subject to a premature service life expectancy. The new gliders are fiberglass, which is much more expensive and timely to repair versus the metal TG-10 gliders."

While the sailplane landing area's turf looks similar to what's installed in Falcon Stadium, the surface beneath the faux grass does not give. The texture is closer to the concrete runways on the airfield than a grass field. That, Plamp said, is one of its advantages.

"There's no backing, so snow and rain melts just like it would through grass," he said. "It should last decades."

Another advantage is that the turf requires almost no upkeep, Bowshot said.

"The cost to install sod with irrigation would have been more expensive over the life cycle versus installing artificial turf," he said. "The synthetic turf is virtually maintenance-free, with only the requirement of an herbicide application in the spring to keep weeds from germinating."

The new landing area will support more than 17,000 sorties per year during its projected 25-year lifespan. Planning for the project began in 2006, with 1½ years spent on design and six months spent on construction. Plamp credited the 10th Civil Engineer and 10th Contracting squadrons as well as Bowshot and the contractor, Toltest Inc., for making the landing area possible.