Fixing Airport Is First Chore Advance Crew Of U.S. Troops To Repair Former Soviet Base
A huge U.S. transport plane brought American troops to this Soviet-era airfield Wednesday to start the first concrete preparations for the NATO peace mission: screwing in runway light bulbs and turning on the radar.
Twelve Air Force and Army officers were on board the camouflaged C-130 Hercules along with equipment to refurbish the 40-year-old airfield before 20,000 U.S. troops start arriving later this month.
They’ll start the first work - actual reconstruction and repairs - needed to station 60,000 NATO troops in Bosnia, eight days before Serb, Croatian and Muslim leaders are to sign their peace treaty in Paris.
Once the biggest military air base in former Yugoslavia, the Tuzla airfield just outside this gritty mining town has fallen into disrepair during 3-1/2 years of war.
Now used by U.N. peacekeepers, the base and its 2,000-yard main runway has only been able to handle helicopters. Its control tower was stripped of all radar and communications equipment by Yugoslav forces. Barely half of its runway lights work. Countless mines are sprinkled along its roads and runways. Still, the Americans had expected worse.
“The (Tuzla) airfield is actually in remarkably good condition. We’re just going to add a little bit to it in preparation for bringing in, obviously, some more airplanes,” said Air Force Col. Neal Patton, vice commander of the 16th Air Force based at Aviano, Italy.
The Air Force will equip the tower with standard radio equipment and fix the runway lights. More sophisticated landing instruments will come later.
“We’re going to start tomorrow morning with the lights, and we’ll go out and do a complete survey. We brought a big bag of parts and we’ll start fixing it right away,” Patton told reporters just outside the base.
The U.S. Air Force will use its whole range of transport planes - the mammoth C-5 Galaxy and others even bigger than the C-130 - to bring in American GIs, tanks, support vehicles and housing.
U.S. military officials in Washington said a “significant surge” of U.S. troops will fly to Tuzla within the first hours of the Dec. 14 Paris signing, and the rest will follow by road and rail.
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