I have mentioned in previous posts that it’s common to see ARFF (Airplane Rescue and Fire Fighting) out on the airfield. In fact, there are days when it seems like ARFF is EVERYWHERE. And no, it isn’t because they are protecting the mobile stairs from me. (The airport police handle that.) Although I’ve seen ARFF providing medical assistance inside the terminal, I’d never seen them assisting an airplane in trouble until recently. And then it happened twice in 24 hours!
Emergency #1 (Maybe?)
About a month ago I was enjoying my lunch break as I often do – plane spotting on top of the parking garage. I happened to see an airplane on approach to runway 28L. I looked down to fiddle with my camera when suddenly something didn’t sound right. I looked back up in time to see that the plane on approach had decided to abort and go around – right over my head!
Much to my disappointment, my airport is not on LiveATC, nor do I have a functioning scanner so I am not able to listen to communications with the tower. Otherwise I would have had a better idea about what was going on. I decided to hang around a bit and wait for the plane to come back in and land. By now I had lost sight of it, but I figured it would likely try again on 28L so I walked over to that side of the garage and I waited. And waited. And waited. I’ve been watching airplanes come and go long enough now that I have a pretty good idea of how long it should take to get back on final. This seemed to be taking quite a bit longer than usual.
Just as I was thinking I would have to give up because my lunch break was almost over, several ARFF vehicles came blasting out of their facility on the eastern edge of the airfield and took up positions along 28L. One fire truck was near the start of the runway, one was along taxiway C1 and another was along taxiway C3. Then there was an ambulance and a smaller ARFF vehicle waiting on the ramp.
At long last the plane appeared once again on approach to 28L. It seemed to take forever before it finally got its wheels on the ground and then it made the shortest stop I have ever seen an airplane that size make. As soon as it got stopped the ARFF vehicles quickly surrounded it. I couldn’t tell from my vantage point exactly what they were doing, but the airplane sat on the runway for several minutes. Then finally it began to taxi down the runway, with the ARFF vehicles following behind. I expected it to turn towards the terminal and head to a gate to let the passengers off. Instead it went directly to a maintenance hangar. I realized then that the plane had been able to stop so quickly because it didn’t have any passengers or luggage on board. I never did find out what exactly happened with this airplane, or even whether it officially declared an emergency. However, given the ARFF response it seems likely that it did.
Emergency #2 (Here We Go Again!)
The next morning I was chatting with a coworker when we heard sirens which grew louder and louder. Sure enough ARFF went blasting down the ramp and took up the EXACT same positions as they had the day before. My coworker is one of those lucky souls whose cubicle is along the windows, so she has a clear view of 10R-28L from her desk. Several of us crowded around to watch out the window. About that time the department manager appeared. He gets text messages whenever there are emergencies at the airport. He told us that the plane coming in had reported brake problems and a possible flat tire. He noted that if the landing went horribly wrong the plane could easily careen into our office. Then he wished us a nice day and left. (Have I mentioned that he has an incredibly dry sense of humor?)
Undeterred we continued to watch out the window. As before, the plane landed and managed to stop very quickly. Not quite as fast as the plane from the previous afternoon, but still much more quickly than usual. Once again the plane was immediately surrounded by ARFF vehicles. Once again it sat on the runway for several minutes. This time, however, when it finally started to taxi it turned towards the terminal and headed for a gate with all the ARFF vehicles in tow.
Closing The North Runway
During both of these events planes continued to land as usual on the north runway, which allowed airport operations to continue without too much disruption. However, all that will change next spring when the north runway will be closed for 6 months for resurfacing. During that time we’ll be operating as a one-runway airport.
As you can imagine, this involves a LOT of extra planning. If there is an emergency that forces the closure of the south runway, flights will have to be diverted. We are extremely lucky to have the cargo airport nearby. It has parallel runways and can easily handle whatever passenger traffic needs to be sent there. Even something as basic as airfield mowing has to be carefully scheduled. You can’t mow near an active runway, and if there is only one runway you can’t shut it down for mowing. So all mowing and regular maintenance activities will have to happen in the wee hours of the morning when there aren’t any regularly scheduled flights. Since it’s
not exactly very sunny here in the middle of the night, the airport is going to have to bring in special lights so the maintenance crews can see what they are doing. Airlines that operate out of gates near the closed runway will have longer taxi times, which will impact the amount of fuel they’ll use. For all these reasons, the decision to close a runway is not made lightly. But in this case the resurfacing is needed and in the end it will be worth the hassle.
I, of course, am unreasonably excited about the closure because it means the south runway will be very busy. I happen to be a I park next to it. My department windows look out on it. There should be lots of good plane spotting opportunities next summer. And when ARFF gets called to the rescue again, I’ll have a front row seat! I promise to keep you posted.