Survey Adventures: Wake Island Taxiway Bravo and Road Improvements

by Dave Hale, PLS

In October 2016, R&M survey crews performed a control and topography survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on Wake Island under our USACE Survey Term Contract. The project included surveying Taxiway Bravo and the roads around the air field to be used for engineering design and upgrades to existing infrastructure. The survey itself was fairly straight forward. Getting to Wake Island is another matter.

Wake Island USACE Surveys

Senior Land Surveyor Jake Austin, PLS working hard on Wake Island.

As surveyors in Alaska, we spend a great deal of time mobilizing crews and gear throughout the state. Our survey crews often travel with up to 1,000 pounds of gear and utilize all manner of vehicles to access remote locations, including small aircraft, helicopters, snow machines, four wheelers and foot. Oftentimes, the logistics is the most challenging part of surveying in Alaska. Mobilizing two crew members and 600 pounds of gear to the South Pacific would prove to be even more difficult.

Wake Island is located in the South Pacific Ocean approximately 1,300 miles north of the Equator and 2,300 miles west of Honolulu, which is why it is maintained as a South Pacific Fuel Stop for aircrafts flying to Asia. There are no large land masses or modern facilities within 2,000 miles in all directions, making Wake one of the most isolated locations in the world. The doctor that works on the island said that if you are shot in the mountains of Afghanistan, the time from callout to emergency room in Germany is around 12 hours. On Wake Island, it is closer to 36 hours. And you don’t want to have to pay for the charter. Typically, the island is accessed by a government-chartered jet that flies to the island once every two weeks (called a rotator). On board that plane are all the food and necessities required to live on the island for those two weeks until another plane comes in. This is the first logistical challenge.

Wake Island USACE Survey

Survey work at the Wake Island Airfield.

Priority on every flight is given to food, people and necessities. Not 800 pounds of survey gear. What this means is the gear must be shipped one to two rotators prior to the survey crews arrival to ensure the gear is on-island before they arrive. The worst case scenario is four surveyors showing up on island without any gear to work with and spending two weeks lounging on the beach waiting for the next flight to arrive. Clients are very reluctant to pay for tropical vacations for our crews, so it is essential gear makes it to the island before the crew. The gear is shipped through Honolulu using a local expeditor to get it on Hickum Air Force Base for transport to the island. This generally takes about a week.

Once the gear is on-island, the people come next. They follow the gear through Honolulu, spending the night so they can be on base by 5 AM, and then fly west across the time zone into tomorrow. Once the crew and the gear are reunited the work begins.

Working on a tropical island would seem to be the Holy Grail of surveying, but it does present some challenges. Temperatures in July average 90 degrees F and cool down to 85 in October. For Alaskan surveyors, this is a brutal environment. We are used to guarding against hypothermia, but avoiding heat stroke is not something we typically have to be concerned with. Water is the key. Gallons of water. Collecting topographic information using conventional methods requires a lot of walking. Walking on rock and corral bleached white from the sun and reflecting the heat of the day back into your face. For ten hours a day. Our crew averaged around six miles of walking per day. In 90 degrees. This is a great weight loss program and we highly recommend it right after the holidays. One thing we learned from our first trip to the island is that no matter how arduous the conditions, never complain about it when you return to Anchorage. The only thing anyone hears is that you were surveying on a tropical island.

D Hale (hipsta)

Senior Land Surveyor Dave Hale, PLS.

The project itself was for the purpose of acquiring topographical data for use in designing upgrades to the taxiway and surrounding roads. The combination of sun, wind, storms and humidity take a heavy toll on existing infrastructure, and the pavement on Wake shows it. The asphalt on the island is a patchwork of cracks, pot holes and missing sections. For all of those driving trucks and mules around the island, the repairs will be welcome.

Dave Hale, PLS is the Project Manager for the Wake Island Survey Project. He is a key member at R&M, and is instrumental in our continued success. Dave has more than 24 years of Alaskan surveying experience. He has served as a Party Chief, Project Manager and Chief of Parties, performing and directing survey work in communities throughout the state. As a Senior Land Surveyor with R&M, Dave is responsible for managing survey projects, performing field work, reducing field data, performing technical computations, and organizing survey deliverables.

R&M Staff Involved: Bill Preston, PLS, GISP; Dave Hale, PLS; Jake Austin, PLS; David Brock, LSIT