Prime Minister Charlot Salwai and new Minister for Infrastructure and Public Utilities Christophe Emelee were briefed late Monday night on progress on the Bauerfield airport refurbishment process.

The briefing included a hands-on experience for the Prime Minister. He climbed aboard one of the massive milling machines as it scoured a 40 cm deep layer of tarmac and cement off the runway apron and spat a stream of gravel into a waiting dump truck.

In addition to the PM, Mr Emelee and the AVL top brass, about a dozen other officials and experts attended.

The PM was visibly engaged, asking numerous questions to the surpervising engineer, and to the implementors, employed by the China Civil Engineering and Construction Corporation. CCECC’s General Manager was present to answer questions, as was the site manager.

The initial briefing ran slightly overtime because of questions. Both Mr Salwai and Mr Emelee were in conversation with technical people throughout the event, which lasted several hours.

Overall progress, once earth was finally broken, has been steady, according to Airports Vanuatu Ltd Chairman Bakoa Kaltongga. He expressed satisfaction with the steady rate of work, and reminded the prime minister that CCECC’s work was being carefully scrutinised by a World Bank-appointed supervising engineer based full-time in Port Vila.

Every night, once the last flight has landed, squadrons of workers and heavy equipment are arrayed for deployment. The asphalting plant is spun up and a new batch of asphalt is prepped.

Several separate crews stand by, each one responsible for one step of the overall process. The first is a echelon of milling machines. These precisely calibrated machines rip up a strip of surface materials to a prescribed depth, grind it and send a stream of finely ground debris into a waiting dump truck.

Each milling machine can fill a dump truck in about ten minutes, so other vehicles are standing by to take the other’s place. A series of predefined horns and hand signals are used to cue each move in this dance.

Once the millers have removed the required amount of surface for the night’s work, a series of sweepers machines come through, removing unwanted leftover debris. This is a crucial step; as a pristine surface is required to avoid hidden imperfections that only appear over time.

Next, driving machines that look like a Transformer got stuck in mid-transform, are the pavers. These machines lay out a thick and consistent layer of asphalt onto the prepared surface.

They’re followed in quick succession by an echelon of rollers to compact the asphalt while it’s still hot.

This process has been completed on a 2000 stretch of the runway. This was the original length of the runway. Another 600 metres were added about a decade ago, the briefers told the PM on Monday.

The newer section of the runway was not the source of concerns raised in 2015 by Air New Zealand and others, so it will not be milled out.

All 2,600 metres of the runway will be given a final asphalting, however. This will provide a consistent surface end to end, and improve the weight-bearing capacity along its entire length.

When completed, the runway and apron will be specified to support aircraft weighing up to 240 tonnes. This includes many of the smaller long-haul planes currently in operation.

Key areas have been widened to accommodate wider wing-spans, and the turning areas at each end have been substantially increased in size.

Lighting and instrumentation are also being significantly upgraded as part of the project.

Some days, as on Monday, work can begin immediately after the 8:00 pm flight from Santo lands. But on others, the Air Vanuatu 737 lands close to midnight, leaving only about 6 six hours to complete a section.

More details will be published as they become available.

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