Touching base: Annual ‘State of the Base’ briefing praises the bond between DAFB and Dover community

DOVER — Col. Joel W. Safranek has served as the commander of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base for almost half a year.

However, even in that brief of a time frame, he has learned first-hand that there is a special bond between the airmen at DAFB — also known as “Team Dover” — and the local community.

Col. Safranek got another reminder of that close-knit relationship when around 225 base and community members squeezed into the Dover Air Force Base and Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the Base Briefing (MilCon) breakfast at The Landings on base Monday morning.

“From a lot of my observations and even the people I’ve talked to throughout the entire wing, there’s not a community like this one,” said Col. Safranek, who took over as the commander of DAFB on May 30. “Look around, there’s 225 people in this room that came out for this briefing. They are engaged.

“When you look at volunteers on the base, the (Air Mobility Command) Museum wouldn’t exist without the 125 volunteers out there, the USO are out there supporting our airmen and there are many, many others.”

The colonel added, “The interaction and the support that we get from the local community really is unrivaled to be honest with you.”

The MilCon breakfast serves as a chance for the public to learn about the base’s activities and construction projects that have been recently completed to prepare the facility for long-term viability, as well as discuss future projects that are in the works.

Projects taking shape

Col. Safranek and Col. William Gutermuth, operations group commander of the 512th Air Wing, spoke before a roomful of military members, business proponents and state and local leaders about what is currently taking place at the base.

They were joined by leaders of DAFB’s Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and the Joint Personal Effects Depo, who also took turns to speak, which impressed U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.

Col. Joel W. Safranek

“When I thought about all that I heard this morning I thought about the hand, the head and the heart,” Rep. Rochester said. “The fact that it takes real effort, real hands, it is a team approach – it takes the hands. It also takes the head, just the brilliance and hard work that people put in, and also the heart.”

Rep. Rochester was joined by U.S. Sens. Tom Carper, Chris Coons and Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen at the event.

Col. Safranek told the gathering that $102 million has been invested in new runway construction at the facility during a project that took more than two years to complete.

He said the installation of a $23 million Type 3 fire hydrant refueling system for aircraft on the base’s hot cargo pad, which will be located on the far end of the runway and is expected to decrease service time by 75 percent, should be complete by next summer.

He added that a new elementary and middle school to be located in base housing are also on track and officials hope to have a contract awarded towards the project next March.

“About 400 students attend the elementary school and about 200 students attend the middle school currently on base,” said Col. Safranek. “We hope if plans go as expected to open the new school by the 2020-’21 school year.”

Larger plans are in the works for the construction of a hangar that will be large enough to perform maintenance work on a C-5 or C-17 in a weatherproof, fully-enclosed area.

The colonel said getting the hangar built is a priority.

“One of the reasons we have this as a priority is you can’t work on some of these larger airplanes when there is lightning, or when the wind is blowing at a certain level and, quite frankly, based on the amount of hangar space that we have, we lose about one month of (aircraft) maintenance time a year due to bad weather,” Col. Safranek said.

He also noted that the base already has an eye focused on the future, which will include restoration of facilities, including the dormitories, and finding workers to add to an “aging civilian workforce.”

“There are about 150 job vacancies for civilians on base currently and the number of people in the workforce right now (civilians on base) that are going to retire over the next four years almost triples,” he said.

He said making sure the base is in top shape with reliable employees is always a huge priority.

“This is kind of like the old (Chesapeake) Bay Bridge,” Col. Safranek said. “By the time we get done painting it we have to go back to the beginning and start all over again.”

Future of flight at DAFB

Dover Air Force Base is home to 31 aircraft, including the massive C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes.

Despite the United States Air Force stating that it hopes to expand to 386 operational units – from the current 312 – it is not expected to affect air mobility very much at DAFB.

“The 386 units is what the (USAF) chief likes to call the ‘fist,’” Col. Safranek said. “There’s a lot of support organizations or sustainment organizations that are the ‘hand’ or the ‘arm’ behind that ‘fist,’ but the ‘fist’ is 386.

“When you look at all the different aircraft and the mission sets the Air Force has, they’re asking for a growth of one squadron in airlift. What that comes down to when you look at the finer details, they’re looking to actually decrease by two tactical airlift squadrons and increase by three strategic airlift squadrons.”

That’s why Col. Safranek doesn’t foresee any major changes coming soon for DAFB.

“If you look at the numbers and how much of the Air Force is wanting to grow, a small amount of it is airlift,” he said. “Our tradition with this installation is just stability of excellence. I don’t see any sort of gain or growth … I see things remaining almost as they are today.

“There are some small changes. We’re growing by the numbers of maintainers because the Air Force is short on maintainers and the Air Force has added a few maintenance personnel throughout the entire Air Force. Plus, we’ve got some administrative help.”

Things got interesting when he spoke of the mammoth aircraft stationed at Dover themselves.

Col. Safranek said that while the Air Force will be adding to its fleet of other types of aircraft, including fighter jets and jet tankers in the upcoming years, the massive cargo jets will take a backseat when it comes to building new planes.

“I don’t know when these airplanes are going to be replaced, I’ve heard anywhere from 2040 to 2060 and somewhere in that particular range … the length of (their) first flight until they get replaced could be approximately 75 years,” the colonel said.

The C-5 first flew in 1968 while the C-17 has been around for 27 years. That’s where a strong maintenance team will come into play.

“It’s important to modernize these aircraft,” Col. Safranek said.

The C-17 is going to get new navigation systems, computer systems put on it, as well as putting in new heads-up displays, and new radios, while the C-5 is expected to be outfitted with updated weather systems along with several other improvements.

The USAF currently maintains a fleet of 52 C-5s and 223 C-17s.

A chance to touch base

Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce (CDCC), said Dover Air Force Base plays a vital part of the community in the state capital.

“It’s constantly evolving because our job is to support the people of Dover Air Force Base,” Ms. Diogo said, of the CDCC’s relationship with the base. “I mean, that’s what we do as a community. We mean it when we say, ‘Team Dover.’ We are all ‘Team Dover’ and whatever they need, we are here.

“Consider that there are almost 6,000 people that are involved with this base who are scattered throughout Kent County, so I only see our relationship continuing to grow, continuing to strengthen and our job is to be here for whatever they need and whenever they need it.”

Diogo and the CDCC held a 45-minute meeting with local businesses that are interested in seeing how they can get involved with the base immediately after Monday’s MilCon breakfast.

Col. Safranek said he and others at DAFB are appreciative of their support.

“We absolutely appreciate events like this, we appreciate the community involvement,” he said. “One (of the base’s priorities) in particular fits into this sort of thing perfectly — which is to enhance partnerships through trust.

“That’s not just inside the gate amongst all the organizations that work together on Dover, but it’s also outside the gate. An event like this is absolutely perfect to fit into that particular priority for this wing.”

 

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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