My Excellent Airfield Adventure

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DISCLAIMER: All tour participants had the necessary security clearance to be on the airfield. The tour was an approved and sanctioned event. All airfield and ATC protocols were followed.

It’s no secret that I’m fascinated by airport operations, especially all that cool equipment they use the keep the airfield running.  As a result, I’m sure the Airfield Maintenance (AFM) team keeps extra locks on the vehicle sheds, just to be safe.  So imagine my surprise when my boss announced that my department had been invited on a tour of the airfield. Um… SERIOUSLY???  The AFM guys are either really brave or they totally under estimate my capacity for mayhem.

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This plane was practicing approaches during the airfield tour.

Our big adventure began with the AFM supervisors picking us up in a shuttle on the ramp right outside our office.  We then went on a drive around the airfield perimeter which allowed us to get a close-up look at the de-icing pads, glycol tanks, fuel farm and ILS equipment.  While they were driving, the AFM supervisors pointed out various systems, facilities and landmarks. They kept saying things like “Does anyone besides Jenn know what an Instrument Landing System is?”  “Does anyone besides Jenn know what RVR stands for?” When they weren’t talking I was bombarding them with questions.  Here are some of the things I learned:

IMG_0123– Airlines are responsible for their own de-icing, but Airport Operations is responsible for directing airplanes into and out of the deicing pads.  The busiest time for this (outside of snow events) is on winter mornings when the first planes to depart have to get the frost removed from their wings.  The rush begins right around 5am or so.

– Airfield Maintenance, Airport Operations, Engineering and ATC meet every Thursday morning to discuss any maintenance or other work that needs to take place in and around the runways in the coming week. (They call this the NOTAM meeting.)  They try to coordinate the work as much as possible to minimize runway closures.

IMG_9994– Airport Operations is in charge of clearing any debris from the runways.  However, if debris is reported and airfield maintenance is already working in the area, they are often called in to handle it.

– At the passenger airport the ILS system and other NAVAIDS belong to the FAA.  This is apparently the norm at many airports.  The FAA flies around to the various airports and tests the equipment to make sure it is functioning properly.  Interestingly, the ILS and NAVAIDS at the cargo and GA airports belong to the airport authority.

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One of the oddest things on the airfield – this plaque which marks the place where an old cemetery used to be. This cannot be seen from the road and unless you know where to look, you probably wouldn’t notice it from the air either

– Any wetlands that are disturbed/destroyed as part of airport construction must be replaced by one and a half times the acreage affected.  When the south runway was built in 2013, a wetlands area had to be filled in.  As per regulations, a new wetlands area was established on the south western corner of the airport property.

IMG_9980– Like any other airport, mine deals with its fair share of bird strikes every year.  If the number of bird strikes goes above a certain level, the USDA will step in to assess the situation.  Other pests the airport has had to contend with: mice, moles, voles and groundhogs.  (A few years back they removed over 300 groundhogs from the airfield!) The proliferation of small rodents in turn brings in larger predators, like hawks and coyotes.

IMG_0015– Runways are inspected and maintained regularly.  Cracks are sealed to prevent water from penetrating the runway surface and causing further damage.  Cracks above a certain size (I can’t remember the exact dimensions, but smaller than you’d think) can force the closure of a runway or taxiway.  Likewise, the grassy areas surrounding the runways must be flat and level.  Any ruts or holes (even from something as simple as sending mowers out when the ground is too wet) will force the closure of the runway and must be repaired immediately.

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One of the sensor pucks buried in the concrete and used to monitor runway conditions.

– AFM and Ops work together to handle runway maintenance in winter conditions using the old ATC tower as a base of operations.  There are sensor “pucks” built into the pavement in various locations on the taxiways and runways.  These sensors give information not only about the surface temperature, but also about the composition of the liquids on the surface.  There are also temperature sensors below ground.  If it is freezing above ground, but warmer below ground, they might be able to delay de-icing procedures. As one of the supervisors put it, managing runways in the winter is part science and part art form. (Salt is NOT used to deice runways as it is very corrosive to airplanes.)

IMG_0087– Plows with metal blades are used to clear the taxiways and the apron.  These plows can remove the snow very effectively.  On the runways they have to use blades with castors and rubber bottoms to avoid ripping out the in-ground runway lights.  (If a light is ripped up it creates a hole in the runway which means the entire runway must be shut down – not good!)  These plows cannot clear snow as effectively, so they are used in conjunction with brooms.

– Because it is fenced off and does not have public access, you do NOT need a CDL to operate a plow on the airfield! However, most AFM employees do have their CDL licenses so they can plow the streets and lots around the airport.

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I prepare to go for a ride in the broom truck!

Our tour of the perimeter concluded on the northern side of the airport near the AFM facilities.  We disembarked the shuttle in a large, mostly empty tie-down area where several pieces of equipment were waiting for us, including a snowplow and a broom truck.  We were then told to choose a vehicle and hop in.  They even said we could drive if we wanted to!  As you might imagine, I was beyond excited!

Having already sat in a plow I decided to climb on board the broom truck.  A very nice man (whose name I forget) drove me around and showed me how the broom works.  I can only imagine what operations and ATC thought at the sight of a bunch of accountants and finance people tooling around the perimeter roads in heavy equipment.  Although I was seriously tempted, I opted not to drive.  Remember how ruts in the grass can shut down a runway?  Yeah, that would totally be my luck!

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NOTAM: This runway will be closed for approximately 6 months next year to undergo resurfacing.

Once everyone had a chance to check out the airfield equipment we hopped back in the shuttle with one supervisor while the other supervisor hopped in a truck ahead of us.  To my amazement he proceeded to contact the tower and request permission for us to drive up runway 28R-10L.  At this point I officially lost my mind.  Ever since I started my job nearly a year ago I have DREAMED of getting out on one of the runways, but never really expected it would happen. Next thing I knew we were cleared onto the runway and off we went. Oh. Heck Yes!!!!! A Delta plane was taxiing towards the entrance of the runway and I can only imagine what the pilots thought when they saw us drive by.

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Yup, that’s a runway all right!

FO: “Tower, this is Delta 123 – I’d like to report a rogue shuttle bus on runway 28 Right.”

ATC: “Roger Delta 123. That’s the accounting and finance department.  They’re… um… conducting an inventory audit of the airfield. That’s right – all fourteen of them have to be driven up the runway so they can confirm it exists.”

Even more hilarious is the fact that we didn’t drive straight up the runway.  Oh no – we were weaving around because the AFM Supervisors were trying to find the sensor pucks to show us what they look like.

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RVR sensor

FO: “Tower, this is Delta 123 again –  are you SURE that’s not a drunk shuttle driver on the loose?  They’re weaving all over the place!”

ATC: “Um… Negative, Delta 123. They’re… um… counting lights.  Yes, that’s it.  You know, as part of the audit.”

We exited the runway where instructed but the supervisors weren’t happy because they hadn’t been able to find any of the sensors, so we got permission to cross the runway where we finally located one of the pucks on the taxiway.  At this point we had made almost a full loop around the airport property so the shuttle took us the short distance back to our office and the tour concluded.  As you might imagine, I was on cloud 9 the rest of the afternoon.  What an awesome experience! This definitely ranks up there as one of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do as part of my job. Now all I need is to get behind the wheel of the stairs truck! And get a tour of the airfield at the cargo airport!  And watch them unloaded the 747-8 cargo planes! And get inside the ATC tower!  And…

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“Emergency” Vehicles Every Airport Should Have

FullSizeRender (21)Most of you are already familiar with ARFF (Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting). They’re the emergency personnel who are on call to assist any time a flight declares an emergency or if something should happen at the terminal. They  can handle a variety of situations from fires to medical trauma.  But what about the slightly less life-threatening emergencies that pilots and flight crews and airport employees face nearly every day? Seems to me our fleet of emergency vehicles could use a few additions.

Coffee Emergency Support Vehicle

Have you ever tried to survive a Monday without coffee? What if you had a plane full of passengers and a 7 hour flight ahead of you and the coffee machine breaks? Life threatening? Well… maybe not. Still an emergency? Hell yes! Sure, you can taxi all the way back to the gate and then walk all the way to where ever the nearest coffee shop happens to be… or you can request that this vehicle be dispatched to meet your plane on the runway.

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 Paranormal Response Unit

I have no idea if there’s such a thing as a haunted airplane and I have yet to encounter any ghosts in the terminal (although one of the toilets in our bathroom likes to flush all by itself when no one is in the area).  However, I figure we might as well be proactive and get one of these vehicles for the airport, just in case.  Besides, it looks cool. Just don’t try to sneak a proton pack through security!

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Mobile Potty Rescue Truck

Let’s face it – a broken lav is no joke. Although airports are pretty good about putting bathrooms everywhere, sometimes the distance between the end of the runway and the nearest potty is just too great.  That’s when you want to have this emergency vehicle standing by.

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Emergency Manicure Van

OH MY GOODNESS I BROKE A NAIL!!!!! This is, of course, completely unacceptable. Even if the airport happens to have a salon on the premises (unlikely) who knows how long the wait might be. No, it is better to request that the Emergency Manicure Van be dispatched ASAP.

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Mobile Shoe Replacement Vehicle

Do your passengers insist on wearing flip flops or spiky high heels? Yikes! It’s time to put a stop to that! Thanks to this sensible shoe store on wheels, the inappropriate footwear crisis can be solved quickly and easily and you don’t even have to disembark the plane!

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Food Truck Brigade

Standard airline food leave something to be desired?  Not thrilled with your meal choices?  Or maybe you’ve just always wanted to see food trucks racing around the airport.  Whatever your motivation you have to admit, having the Food Truck Brigade service your plane before departure would be pretty cool

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Wienermobile

When you wish you were an Oscar Meyer Weiner RIGHT NOW, this vehicle can come to the rescue. OK, fine – it’s pretty much no help whatsoever in an emergency.  But you have to admit – it would be absolutely hilarious to see this vehicle cruising up and down the runways. If I worked in ATC I’d be dispatching the Wienermobile all the time, just for the fun of it.  And look, there’s even a mini version for the GA airport!

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 Emergency Bar

Yes, I know that inebriated, unruly passengers have led to a shocking number of diversions in recent years. Dispatching the Emergency Bar in this type of situation is probably the last thing anyone should do.  Thankfully, this emergency vehicle isn’t for flight crews or passengers.  It’s for ME! And on days when only a brewski will do, there’s also the Emergency Beer Can on wheels.

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Disaster Scenario Update

IMG_9764In my last post I discussed the Disaster Drill Briefing for the GA airport that I attended a couple of weeks ago.  This year they decided to keep the exact scenario a secret in order to make the experience more realistic.  I hypothesized that given the date (the day before Halloween) and the participating agencies (Departments of Health, SWAT),  the most appropriate scenario would have to involve zombies. Sadly, I was wrong. Instead the exercise involved a hijacking which somehow also included ricin.  I don’t have the full story of how it all unfolded, however if I get any additional details about what happened and how it was handled, I’ll let you know.  Brace yourselves – next year’s exercise will be held at the cargo airport and I’ve already told them that I want to participate.  I may yet get the chance to fulfill my dream of causing mayhem in a snowplow!

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