Thunder Road on the Southern Flank

Sept. 1, 2002

The US Air Force and NATO are midway through a $535 million effort to convert Aviano Air Base in Italy from an austere, outdated, and littleused outpost into a comfortable, modern, and efficient facility that has become a vital hub for allied air operations in southern Europe.

Air Force Col. Gary C. LaGassey, the program manager for Aviano 2000, says NATO’s biggest construction project will transform the northern Italian airfield “from Sleepy Hollow to Thunder Road.”

The need for the extensive improvement effort became clear in April 1994, when the 31st Fighter Wing’s two squadrons of F16s arrived as permanent residents at what had been primarily a transient base for NATO aircraft.

The wing’s personnel and dependents doubled Aviano’s population almost overnight, but found undersized and inadequate operational, maintenance, and support facilities and poor housing, base officials said.

Aviano’s deficiencies became even clearer during the base’s intensive use in the alliance’s Bosnia campaign in 1995-96 and again in Operation Allied Force against Serbia in 1999. The hundreds of allied aircraft using the base during those conflicts overwhelmed its limited infrastructure. And many of the aircrews and support personnel had to live in a tent city along the runway.

The planned improvements will not prepare Aviano to handle that kind of wartime load on a steady basis. But they will provide a major boost in the quality of work and quality of life for the permanent population of 3,593 US military personnel, 414 American civilian employees, and 3,749 family members. The workday population also includes 230 Italian air force personnel and 1,309 local employees.

The Lion’s Share

Aviano 2000 was initiated in 1995 as a joint NATO-US project, with the alliance paying about 70 percent of the cost and the US Air Force providing the remaining 30 percent.

Italy, as the host nation, contributed to the effort by ceding 210 acres of additional land, which, under what’s called the Zappala master plan, now contains the new commissary and base exchange and will include the chapel, a dining hall, visiting quarters, barracks, and other services.

Overall, the planned work includes 264 individual projects to build new facilities, modernize or improve many existing structures, and to make major improvements to the base utilities, runway, and aircraft parking ramps.

Improving quality of life for the Aviano residents is a major objective. That effort includes four new enlisted dorms, which will house 102 airmen, each in 1+1 rooms with a shared bath and kitchen, close to dining, recreation, and fitness facilities.

The plans also include a community recreation area with sports fields, basketball and volleyball courts, a lodge, a pavilion, a playground, and a picnic area with grills.

Other projects will improve flight-line operations, create functional centers that consolidate similar functions, eliminate unneeded interim facilities, and incorporate force protection measures.

Flight-line operations will be enhanced by improvements to the runway, expansion of the ramps, and modernization of the three hangars and by building new maintenance shops and a taller, up-to-date control tower.

Force protection will be enhanced partly by bringing inside the security perimeter activities now located miles outside the base in leased facilities. Those include the kindergarten-through-12th-grade dependents schools, which were to move into new consolidated buildings last month, and the hospital, which should be ready in 2004.

All of the family housing, however, remains outside the fence, in rented or leased quarters.

The NATO-funded projects have used the alliance’s competitive bidding process, open to all NATO member countries, said Nancy Balkus, Aviano 2000 project management branch chief. Italian firms have won all of the contracts except two, which went to German-Italian joint ventures, she said.

The design work on 32 projects under US control went primarily to US firms.

The projects are supervised by a Navy civil engineer officer, because the Navy is the construction agent for the Mediterranean region, Balkus explained.

The Mediterranean Look

As much as possible, the new structures were designed to be compatible with the local architecture, she said.

Those buildings have a Mediterranean look, with red clay tile roofs and stucco exteriors in sunny yellow or peach color with white accents.

As with many large, complex construction projects Aviano 2000 has had its problems.

The original contractor for the school buildings was fired for poor performance in 2000, halfway through the $22.1 million project. That delayed the opening of the new school complex by two years.

Then last year, the construction company working on the new club and temporary housing facility fell behind schedule and stopped work, demanding more than the $17 million it had bid. That demand was denied and the contract was given to a new firm, “which is moving forward smoothly,” Balkus said.

Despite those glitches, all of the planned work is expected to be completed by 2007, she added.

In a visit to the base in April, Air Force Association National President John J. Politi awarded an AFA special achievement award to the Aviano 2000 program management team 2002 led by LaGassey.

And Maj. Gen. Earnest O. Robbins II, USAF civil engineer, said recently: “Aviano 2000 is perhaps the best example of major construction program management I’ve seen in over 32 years as an Air Force engineer.” The way the Air Force, the Navy, Italy, and contractors pulled together “will serve as a model for us to emulate as we look into the future,” Robbins said

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.­based military affairs reporter for Copley News Service and a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Quest for Jointness,” appeared in the September 2001 issue.