What do the US Marines and California resort tourists have in common? They’re all supporting the rise of Catalina Island.

In early 2019, a force of more than 100 US Marines is scheduled to descend on Catalina Island, which sits just 20 miles off the US mainland, near Orange County. They’re there to rebuild the main runway at the “Airport in the Sky” as it’s known - a 3,000-foot-long asphalt strip built almost 80 years ago. After the old runway is torn up, the Marines will “invade” Catalina by boat and helicopter from mainland bases. Just as they would in the field, they’ll camp at the airport and ship in 500 tons of equipment. When it’s all said and done, the island will be left with a more durable concrete runway for future generations.

 According to the conservancy organizations that manages the island, they’re expecting that project to give them at least another 75 years of runway operations. Sitting at an elevation of 1,600 feet, the original runway was created by carving the tops off of two mountaintops, then filling the valley up between them. The challenge was that the runway wound up being higher in the middle than at the ends… a tough situation for pilots who found themselves unable to see where the runway actually ended once they began touching down. 

Because of its height and location, it almost gives pilots the feeling of landing on an aircraft carrier. But bringing the aircraft carrier experience to life on land is not the reason the Marines are getting involved. They see it as great training for building or repairing a runway on some battle-scarred island in the future. And of course it saves the island a heck of a lot of money that they’d otherwise have to spend.

The runway work is part of the Defense Department’s Innovative Readiness Training Program, which was created to produce mission-ready forces while providing key services for American communities. The Airport in the Sky is an important lifeline for the 4,000 residents of Catalina as well as the 1 million people who visit the island every year, and the runway sees 14,000 takeoff and landings in a year.