Laying track from the cowcatcher of the bullet train

Colonel Gary C. LaGassey, United States Air Force, Program Manager, Aviano 2000

This article describes “Aviano 2000,” the U.S. Air Force's largest base construction program, a 10-year, $530-million, 264-project, infrastructure upgrade of Aviano Air Base, Italy. It examines the complexities of the international environment in which the program is being carried out and addresses the added element of starting up a project office more than five years after the program began. It provides “scar tissue” lessons learned for program and project managers who are charting a course to cope with “runaway train” projects and form winning project teams from dysfunctional matrixed organizations.


In April 1994, as the result of an October 1993 decision by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the U.S. Air Force relocated its 31st Fighter Wing to Aviano Air Base, Italy. Arrival of the wing, consisting of 42 F-16 fighters, more than doubled the military population, from 1,600 to 3,500, at a base that was originally sized for about 1,300 in the mid-50s.

Aviano had never had permanent flying units assigned. During the Cold War it was a base destined to receive reinforcing squadrons in the event of a World War III scenario. Base facilities had not been improved much over the years because the largest threat to NATO came from Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces arrayed across central Eastern Europe. As a result, NATO infrastructure investment in the Mediterranean region fell far behind the central region, and Aviano was no exception. Its facilities were woefully undersized and inadequate for the new mission.

In late 1993, as the Air Force prepared to move the wing to Aviano, it quickly became clear that major infrastructure investments would be needed to allow its most modern combat aircraft to operate. Planners at the Pentagon and at Headquarters United States Air Forces in Europe (HQ USAFE) acted quickly to identify and program emergency funding to offset the worst problems, such as operational facilities and living conditions, and make the deployment as painless as possible. They programmed approximately $40 million worth of upgrades for fiscal year 1994 (Oct 1993–Sep 1994) and another $12 million for fiscal year 1995, while at the same time pursuing NATO funding for its new NATO mission.

NATO stepped up to its investment challenge, approving a “Capabilities Package” for more than $350 million to support the fighter beddown. By mid-1996 additional emergency construction was under way and AE firms were working overtime to turn out several large project designs.

Strong leadership by HQ USAFE planners and programmers, the Aviano base civil engineer, and senior commanders throughout the system drove many early successes in the program. But, the military commanders and senior civilian leaders who led the effort had to work long days just to keep the program on track. By early 1997, as the train began to approach warp speed, those same commanders were beginning to reach burnout limits. Most importantly, the fighter wing's ability to prepare for its primary mission of air combat was being diluted by the amount of time and energy its senior leaders had to spend on Aviano 2000.

In December 1998, Lieutenant General Mike Short, the commander of U.S. and NATO air forces in NATO's Southern Region stepped in. His vision was to have a single, full-time, program office build the base for its customer—the 31st Fighter Wing—freeing up the wing commander and his team to concentrate on the flying mission. The Aviano 2000 Program Management Office (PMO) was to be the “single belly button” for execution of the program. A program manager (PM) was selected from within the base organizational structure and instructed to “make it happen.”

Initial Assessment

General Short's desire to fix the management problem was based on 34 years of leadership experience. He intuitively knew something was wrong from the signs he was getting at program reviews. It fell to the PM to sort out the root causes.

From mid-February 1999 until July 1st, when USAFE formally authorized the Aviano 2000 PMO, the designated PM scrambled to analyze his challenge and operating environment; developed a vision, program scope statement, and charter; framed an implementation strategy; and charted his course of action. He felt the pressure to accomplish these tasks concurrently because the program train was running and there was no chance to stop project actions long enough to set up a program office as it should have been done at the outset of such a program. His initial assessment:

The Challenges

There were two competing but equally compelling challenges:

• Keep ongoing projects moving without losing momentum. Many of these projects were already troubled in the planning as well as the execution phases.

• Start up the PMO and make it functional as quickly as possible.

Program Scope

The Aviano 2000 program, as laid out by initial planners, was to be a mixture of operational, direct and indirect support, and quality of life (QOL) facilities; 264 in all, including utilities (electric, gas, water, and sewage) and communications backbones to support all the new or renovated facilities. Operational upgrades and new facilities include restoration of a 7,500-foot runway, aircraft arresting barrier systems, airfield lighting, control tower, radar approach control system, and fighter squadron operations facilities. Support facilities include jet engine and avionics, ground fuel stations and hot pit refueling, warehousing, munitions storage and assembly, crash fire station, passenger and freight terminal, an integrated communications complex and a security force complex. QOL facilities include a 20-bed hospital, a $25 million kindergarten through 12th grade school complex, dormitories and family lodging, dining facilities, a large exchange and commissary facility, a combined officers and enlisted club, fitness center, library, youth center, theater, post office, and child care center.

Prior to 1996, Aviano, which is actually an Italian Air Base where the U.S. is a guest under U.S. and NATO arrangements, consisted of 1,110 acres of land divided into seven major areas. The largest area is the flightline operations area at 989 acres. In May 1996, the Italian Air Force ceded an additional 210 acres adjacent to the flightline for U.S. use. Even with the additional land, Aviano is considered small by USAF standards. Because of overcrowding in the existing base areas, planning for many new facilities focused on the new 210 acres.

The Program Execution Environment

Aviano 2000 is being carried out in a very complex international environment. It includes U.S.-Italian bilateral relations and sovereignty issues; international politics; high-level sponsors; multi-source funding (19 nations contribute to the NATO Infrastructure Fund); international competitive bidding; U.S. and Italian design and construction agents; multiple layers of oversight and management; European Community environmental and safety legislation; security considerations; and the daily potential for air combat in the Balkans.

At the time of PMO start-up, the fighter wing had already fought one major air campaign in Bosnia (August-September 1995) and the storm clouds of the Kosovo Campaign were on the horizon. Construction of a major city in an area that included upward of 200 fighter aircraft flying around the clock combat operations presents an interesting execution challenge.

Project Funding

Funding comes from multiple sources.

• NATO is funding 85 of the 264 projects, valued at $350 million, from its infrastructure fund. In order to expedite construction of the most needed facilities, the U.S. “prefinanced” 30 projects. Prefinancing is a NATO procedure where a member nation that needs facilities quickly can accomplish the work with the possibility for NATO pay back of the investment at a later date.

• The remaining 174 projects, a value of $180 million, are funded through multiple USAF sources. These projects are managed by the Base Civil Engineer under standard Air Force programming rules. Some of the project funding comes from base operations and maintenance (O&M) funds with additional funding from Congressional authorizations, commonly known as Military Construction or MILCON appropriations.

The Players

As indicated above, there are lots of players involved in the program as it evolves from the planning/programming stage through full execution. Sorting out the players was a critical first task for our program manager.


The key sponsors of the program, those who bring money, are NATO and the USAF. There is, however, a shift of emphasis in sponsorship as money is actually authorized. When NATO completes its screening of each project it authorizes an amount of money to cover the necessary design and construction. At that point NATO leaves it up to the executing nation to manage the project, giving it the responsibility to ensure it doesn't exceed the amount authorized. At the end NATO conducts a comprehensive facility inspection and takes the facility into its real estate inventory.

The money trail also defines USAF sponsorship, but in a more traditional military hierarchy sense. In the case of Aviano 2000, the commander, 16th Air Force, who is also located at Aviano, has taken on day-to-day sponsorship of the program. He does so in the name of HQ USAFE at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.


We have defined our principal customer to be the commander, 31st Fighter Wing, and all the men and women of the wing who will benefit from the new or renovated facilities. The relationship, however, is one of customer as full participant or full collaborator, because they have a definite role to play in the execution of the program. This is not a case of simply building a facility and handing the keys over to the customer—everyone has to participate fully to make the projects successful.


Prior to establishment of the PMO, management oversight was vested in HQ USAFE, which had three or four project managers on site and two more back at the headquarters in Germany. They fulfilled a traditional USAF role of command design/construction manager, in which they were the formal spokesmen to construction agents. Standard USAF base construction organizations are matrixed, with the headquarters playing the role of day-to-day project managers and the base engineer and his people playing a supporting role. The wing commander and the group commanders form a part of the management process, but it is more in the reviewing role than in day-to-day hands-on management.

The Agents

An interesting twist to the Aviano program is that there can be four agents who actually contract the work to be done in the program. The base civil engineer has agent responsibility (in concert with the base contracting office) for projects funded with O&M money (construction up to $500,000). Sometimes he uses the Army Corps of Engineers as an agent to execute projects, to include contracting support, construction management, and quality oversight. In the Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy has been designated as the Department of Defense design and construction agent for military construction (MILCON) level work (greater than $500K). Thus, the Navy, through its Engineering Field Activity Mediterranean at Naples and its Resident Officer in Charge of Construction (ROICC) at Aviano executes any USAF MILCON and that part of the NATO program that has been authorized to be executed by the U.S. through a special arrangement with Italy. Finally, Italy serves as an agent because it is constructing 25 of the NATO projects for the USAF. She does so through the Italian Defense Engineering Activity, known as GENIODIFE. Overall, Italy plays a significant role in the program, which is being executed on an Italian base and must meet Italian legal norms.


NATO Infrastructure rules call for International Competitive Bidding (ICB), thus making every one of the 19 NATO nations competitive for the work that they fund. Each project is normally bid separately, although there has been some packaging of smaller projects to facilitate bidding and construction. We are currently working with 8–10 design and 6–8 construction contractors as we execute the program.

PMO Operating Resources

The PM's evaluation of available resources found there were virtually no resources specifically authorized for a program office to start up and run. He would have to establish requirements and compete for each and every resource.

Personnel. Among the various base agencies, there were only 10 people available who could be considered as “Aviano 2000” resources. All other human resource requirements had to be defined, defended, and authorized before personnel could actually be assigned.

Funding. No budget existed for a PMO. All requirements would have to be defined, defended, and authorized.

Facility. Plans for a facility to house the various Aviano 2000 players had been under way for some time, but completion of an actual facility was in the distant future.

Equipment. Most of the people who were doing Aviano 2000 tasks were using unit equipment provided by their work sections. Again, any new requirements would have to be defined, defended, and authorized.

Program Status and Assessment

In late February 1999, the Aviano 2000 program had been under way for five years. More than 60 small and medium projects, those necessary to provide creature comfort for fighter wing personnel who were working in terrible conditions, had been completed. Three major facilities, a 500-person dormitory, a child development center, and a major administrative facility had been completed. About 80 additional projects were in various stages of design. The NATO screening process, by which NATO reviews proposed projects at the 35% design stage, agrees on individual project scope and authorizes final funding, had bogged down due to a lack of screeners and a heavy workload. This was delaying final designs and construction awards, putting the program at great risk against the schedule.

The PM's assessment of his tasks, program scope, operating environment, resources and program status led him to believe that despite the extraordinary work of everyone involved to date, the program had evolved to a point where drastic change was needed if it was to be successful.

In reality, the program was in Phase III, having matured through two critical phases:

• The initial phase, best called the “make the fighter wing bed-down happen” phase, saw HQ USAFE and wing leadership and planners pulling out all the stops to accommodate almost 2,000 new military members and close to 4,000 family members, 42 F-16s, and all associated equipment. It is a tribute to superb leadership and perseverance that they were able to survive the onslaught. Long range planning was not on their scope.

• Phase II, from 1995–1997, was the heavy planning/programming phase. This was handled by a second generation of wing leadership and, again, through extraordinary efforts at both HQ USAFE and at the wing, the Aviano 2000 concept was shaped. In fact, for a long period, the Air Force Civil Engineer was leading the developmental work through very effective quarterly program reviews. Under his guidance, fast tracking of project design became the name of the game.

Phase III began in early 1998, when what had been a “hair-on-fire approach,” changed into more of a routine approach. Wing leadership changed and the Air Force Civil Engineer no longer participated. At this point, functional managers began executing this multiple project program as routine work and the emphasis on individual projects continued. Despite the fact that there were 60 major NATO projects to be completed in the program, formal project teams were not established to manage any of them.

The assessment showed that project managers were assigned from three organizations: HQ USAFE, the base civil engineer squadron, and the design/construction agent, either Italy or the U.S. Navy. The PMs from each organization all thought they were in charge of the project. In reality, their responsibilities, which had not been formally defined, were shared and no one really had authority or accountability for the projects. As a result, decisionmaking frequently devolved to senior management and, in many cases, to program sponsors. As problems began to arise, finger pointing started, and it was impossible to pinpoint root causes for actions not completed, delays, or other problems.

This situation manifested itself in poor communications, busted deadlines, disproportionate workloads, crisis management, lack of budget controls, functional managers who were not supporting the program, minimal customer focus, a limited quality program, and a lack of basic processes for change, issues resolution, decision-making and financial decisions. The process was loose and inefficient. There was a lack of project controls and there wasn't a schedule to track status. Most critical, there were not enough people available to handle the enormous workload.

The fundamental disconnect? No one was truly in charge of either the base program or the individual projects. Despite being the USAF's largest ground-up construction program, it was being managed by functional managers at the headquarters and in the engineering, contracting, and communications functions of the fighter wing.

Course of Action

The program had two critical needs: a program management methodology and a formalized project-based approach.

• Conscious of the need to attack the dual challenges of keeping the program moving forward and establishing the PMO, the PM plotted his course of action. Although HQ USAFE had not officially established the program, he struck a deal to take immediate operational control of engineers assigned to Aviano 2000, giving them authority as the single project managers to keep their projects moving forward. This was to be a “cradle-to-grave” approach, to include leading project delivery teams for each project and facility furniture and equipment acquisition. The approach was complicated when he discovered that although the assigned personnel had been called “project managers,” they were not in reality project managers. Only one had what could be called project management experience. The others were project engineers. It became a matter of turning those who showed the desire into PMs—easier said than done. Three did not and quickly sought employment elsewhere, leaving the program shorthanded.

• Prioritized workloads. With the goal of obtaining a systematic approach to the workload and creating balance among the PMs, he reassigned work and laid out a priority of action. Realizing that it all couldn't be done with the resources available, he developed a plan to seek additional labor resources.

• Built a preliminary (and very rough) program methodology, which he called the “Approach for Aviano 2000 Program Managers.” The basis of this methodology was a “back of the envelope” work breakdown structure that focused on what the overall Aviano 2000 program was supposed to achieve. Looking back on the methodology from the vantagepoint of 12 months of start-up activity shows just how primitive it was, but it worked.

• The centerpiece of the methodology was that for the 85 NATO projects, the PMO would become a truly project based organization, using the principles of project management contained in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), established by the Project Management Institute (PMI®).

• Sorted out the elements of a successful program and individual projects.

• Assessed the tools needed by the program team to achieve success.

• Drafted simple mission, program scope, charter, and vision statements. Again, these were rudimentary in nature. The principal objective of having these in the “Approach,” was to get preliminary buy-in from the players who were “being forced” into a program management system.

• Developed a nominal organizational structure using the methodology. This was a rough framework to be used to convince the project sponsor, Lt. Gen. Short, of program needs and to gain his support in the fight for resources.

• Roughed out an operating budget, which, including salaries for temporary hires and contract personnel, was initially estimated to be $1.8 million a year. Sticker shock ensued!

• Laid out the preliminaries of a scheduling program that would be used to manage the projects from a “programmatic” view.

• Accelerated a dormant facility upgrade to house the program team. Set a fast track construction schedule and ordered the necessary furniture and equipment. This single step of housing all 60 players involved in the program under one roof improved communications 50%.

• Obtained sponsor buy-in of the approach and took it to HQ USAFE in mid-March 1999 with the objective of obtaining headquarters functional buy-in of the concept and resources necessary to execute the program.

Results to Date

We are a long way from being out of the woods on this PMO startup, but we've made tremendous progress since February 1999. In that time we've received final approval of our plan (24 May), met our planned initial operating date (1 July), kept the construction program going through the 79-day Kosovo air campaign, and completed a $6 million runway restoration project in just 32 days! It hasn't always been pretty, but it's getting better.

Lessons Learned

We have learned hundreds of lessons from this experience of setting up a PMO five years after the program began. It's been a steep learning curve. While we will undoubtedly continue to learn through program completion in 2005, this next year of our activity, as we begin construction of 15 new projects, will steeply accelerate our learning curve.

What can we pass on to project managers to help them when faced with a similar set of project or program circumstances? Here's our advice:

Get a good sponsor and assign responsibilities to a single manager for each project. These are age-old principals, but they can't be emphasized enough. Projects without good sponsorship and accountable managers are doomed.

Quickly sort out your core task. Assess the seemingly hundreds of competing priorities and get a focus on what you are really supposed to be doing. If you can't cull this down into a couple of fundamental objectives, you need to work on it until you can. Everything you will need to do to fix a runaway train project depends on an agreed upon definition of the core task. The added side benefit is that is that by sorting out the core task you conduct an assessment of your program/project, which pays dividends over the long haul.

Write a “Vision” statement. Make it simple. Ours reads, “Delivering quality, ready-to-operate facilities on time and within scope for the USAF's best combat fighter wing.” If you've sorted out the core task, your vision statement will be relatively easy. Don't agonize over it. Its real value is to serve as your organizational compass for your goal to be realized.

Develop a program/project scope statement, mission statement, and charter. Again, don't agonize over them for more than a day or two. Get some smart people together and sort them out. There's no perfect solution to developing these at the outset, but you need them to help frame your project management methodology. Consider them as living documents. If you get it about 80% right at the start, you've got enough to move ahead.

Draft a project management methodology and brief it to your sponsor. Your methodology will derive from the vision, scope and mission statements, and charter. You need to select how you are going to execute your project. What management style are you going to use? Do you need tools? Which ones? Are you going to be project based, functionally aligned, or a strong matrixed operation? Any exercise to determine your methodology will raise and answer lots of questions about the organization, processes, goals, and objectives. What you need is something on paper that provides clarity for your project team to follow. Once you get your sponsor's buy in, give it to your team. Teams need clarity on troubled projects and you've got to provide it to them.

Develop and nurture your team. Build it as best you can. Give the team members your guidance. Most teams are searching for leadership and you're it. Assign roles and responsibilities. Delegate authority and accountability. Be brutally honest with your people about the project, especially if it's in trouble. Assign tasks and priorities. Take action. Fight to get your people the help to do their jobs. Get them project management training. You'll be surprised about how few have it. You're the leader and no one else will build your team or take care of it.

Make a schedule. Start with your core task and vision statement. What do you need to do to meet them? Back up from there to figure out the incremental steps you need to accomplish. A rough work breakdown schedule will give you the key elements. Call in some help, a contractor or someone in the organization who knows scheduling. Remember: a schedule is a tool to HELP you do your job, it won't do the job. AVOID becoming a slave to the schedule. The important thing is to have something that works for you and your team. Insist on it.

Keep communicating. The key to successful implementation of any project management methodology is communication. First and foremost is to keep your sponsors, customers and team members fully informed ALL THE TIME. Establish communication links that work and keep them lit up. Communicate and listen. Open channels increase trust and productivity. It takes lots of work, 24 hours a day, to keep project teams up to speed on what's going on. Do a communications assessment in your unit. Find out your communication weaknesses and work on them. Get training for your people on good communication skills: briefing, listening, running meetings, negotiating, etc. Make your teams work at it—the payoff of great communication is a great project. The downside is failure.

Be enthusiastic and patient and keep a sense of humor. I was once told that project management is “getting your hands around chaos.” To do that you've got to stay fired up to go after ambiguity, remain patient when things look bleak and your people are bringing you bad news, and always maintain a sense of humor. These are leadership traits that work in every walk of life. They will help you maintain your sanity in a runaway train project.

Stay flexible. In the USAF we say flexibility is the “key to air-power.” In the Aviano 2000 PMO we say, “rigid flexibility is the key to project management.” Management of project anomalies requires a daily regime of adjustment, change, and adjusting fire. If, as a project manager, you have a philosophy of resistance to change, you are in the wrong business.

These recommendations have become imperatives for us in our first year of existence as a program management team. Hopefully, they'll help you, too. Watch this space next year to learn how we made it through year two.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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