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First Air Guard Assault Runway at Camp Shelby

JACKSON, Mississippi -- The Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center (CSJFTC) just got better, and the 172nd Airlift Wing's C-17 training facilities just got bigger.

Already a premier training center operating at a full-scale mobilization station as needed as a U.S. Army Forces Command Power Support platform, operations and training capability were further enhanced in July with the official opening of the Air National Guard C-17 Assault Runway.

Mississippi National Guard members and special guests gathered in the summer heat of the CSJFTC July 9 to cut the yellow ribbon for the Air National Guard's first C-17 Globemaster III assault landing training facility.

The runway is the first of its kind for an Air National Guard unit, and one of two airfields in the world designed and constructed for C-17 short field assault landing operations. Further, it is the only one owned by the Air National Guard.

Called Shelby Aux Field, the 210-acre airfield is designed to provide proficiency in training for the 172nd's short landing and take off mission under the most demanding conditions, either in deployed combat operations or emergency civil support for the state of Mississippi, or other domestic emergencies nationwide.

More than 300 people attended the ceremony. They watched a C-17 flyover and landing that demonstrated the airfield's and the airplane's capabilities. Speakers included Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley, director of the Air National Guard; Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, commanding general of the 1st U.S. Army, and Maj. Gen. Harold A. Cross, the adjutant general of Mississippi.

"It's great to come out and see something that has been on the drawing books for many, many years and now it's ready to be used fulltime," said McKinley. "It means a lot to our country, it means a lot to the state of Mississippi and it will provide a lot of training for many years to come for Airmen flying the C-17."

The Jackson-based 172nd was the first Guard unit to fly the C-17, which the Air Force calls it's "most flexible cargo aircraft." Air Force officials say it can operate from small, austere airfields including assault runways as short as 3,500 feet and only 90 feet wide. The aircraft turns around on narrow runways by using its backing capability to make a three-point turn.

Capt. Brian Matranga, a pilot for the 172nd, said such maneuvers are generally performed by aircraft commanders. The wing has approximately 44 of them, and all are required to make assault landings every training cycle. "That's a lot of training we have to accomplish ... and a lot of times it's hard to schedule at out-of-state facilities," said Matranga.

An aircraft commander or mission pilot is the only one who can conduct the steep and swerving descents and short arrests using thrust reversers and brakes during an assault landing. It's an initial qualification achieved at aircraft commander upgrade school at Altus Air Force Base, Okla.

Such landings can be conducted in blackout conditions in which aircrews wear night vision equipment to see special lights defining the runway. It could be compared to landing on an aircraft carrier at night, except that the runway is a lot longer and is not pitching and rolling.

However, a C-17 is longer than three Navy F-18 Hornets and can carry a 70-ton Abrams tank and more than 100 Soldiers.

A new three-stall fire house and operations center has also been built at Shelby Aux Field to support the training operations. Officials said they would share the facility with active duty C-17 units. It will provide users with real-time scoring and feedback on their landing maneuvers.

With the 172nd managing weekly airlift missions to Iraq, and with a history of supplying airlift to joint forces in Turkey and Afghanistan, the training is relevant. The wing's Airmen said they remain ready to respond to all requests, including natural disaster missions and combat missions into joint force operations overseas.

"This [facility] is one little part in our national defense mosaic that continues to make us the greatest nation in the world," said Cross. "It's an asset to the state of Mississippi and the nation."