I hate this time of year. I work long hours and it’s a struggle to get away from my desk. When I do get a moment free it is either too wet, too cold or too dark to go outside. Just the other day an Osprey flew in and all I could do was watch sadly through the office window. This is so not OK! Maybe the lack of airfield action is why I’m a little obsessed with winter operations. OK, actually, I’m a lot obsessed. But let’s face it – no other season allows me to get my fix of airplanes and big, awesome ground support vehicles all at the same time!
If you have been reading this blog for awhile then you know that last year I got the opportunity to help the Ops department manage the flow of traffic into and out of the deice pad. There was a lot to learn and it was kind-of stressful, but it was also incredibly cool. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to help out this year and I miss it SO MUCH! Wait… did I just admit that I miss being at the airport at 5am in freezing weather? Yes, I did. I know it sounds crazy, but I really enjoyed making a hands-on contribution to keeping the airport up and running.
Preparation for the winter season actually begins in August. That’s when the airport starts stocking up on the chemicals and other supplies needed to aid in snow removal. In early fall we start hiring winter seasonal employees and the Airfield department recruits for additional snow warriors from among the other departments. I know what you’re thinking. If they allow other airport employees to help out in the winter, why on earth have I not jumped all over this opportunity? Please refer back to paragraph number one. Sadly, winter is the busiest time of year in accounting and it just isn’t possible to take on anything else.
This year we added serious muscle to our snow removal capabilities with the purchase of six multi-function machines. These ginormous vehicles have a plow on one end and a broom on the other. They are capable of moving huge amounts of snow in a fairly short amount of time. When it comes to ground support vehicles, these are the biggest and baddest of the bunch. Only the full-time airfield employees are allowed to drive them – no seasonals or helpers from other departments. Not surprising when you consider they cost three quarters of a million dollars each!
Once the snow starts falling, keeping the airport open is a collaborative effort between Operations, Airfield Maintenance and ATC. One of these days I hope to score a ride along so I can get a first-hand look at the process. But for now I do what so many other avgeeks do – I bring up Flight Radar 24 and tune in to the tower on Live ATC. Listening in on winter operations at any airport can be fascinating. However, when it’s my airport it becomes quite personal. I know the people who are out there working, and when the weather conditions are bad I know what they are up against.
Our most recent big storm was quite a challenge. It started with temps well above freezing and torrential rain. These conditions can make it hard to pre-treat the runways to get ahead of the frozen participation to come. The temps fell through-out the day hovering at the freezing mark for a few hours and coating everything in ice. As the temps continued to plummet the ice turned to snow and the winds began to pick up.
Our runways have an east-west orientation. During this storm the wind was from the north gusting up to 32kts. Keeping the runways and taxiways plowed in these conditions is incredibly difficult to say the least. The crosswinds, in combination with snowy runways (rated at 3/3/3 on the RCAM scale), proved to be too much for most flights. For a good two hours I watched as every single plane had to divert. Ouch! This is never what any airport or airline wants. However, sometimes there’s just no winning against Mother Nature.
I was surprised at first to hear the deice pad frequency up and running so late at night. Under normal winter conditions – a frosty day or light snow – Ops will run the deice pad only during busy departure times. Otherwise the ramp remains uncontrolled and pilots work directly with the ground crews to get positioned for deicing. However, I found out that any time the airport is in snow operations, the Ops Department will take charge of the deice pad. This way they can keep the parking lines clear of snow, improve traffic flow and minimize the risk of collisions. Plus it allows them to relieve some of the burden on ATC since Ops will take over issuing some of the taxi instructions.
During a storm the snow removal teams focus on the runways and the main taxiways. It can take several days after the snow stops falling to clear the rest of the paved surfaces. (Airports have A LOT of paved surfaces!) Fortunately we’re in the midst of a mid-January thaw so the temps have warmed up, the snow has melted and the snow warriors are getting a much-needed rest. However, I have a feeling winter isn’t done with us yet. The snow will return, and when it does you know I’ll be watching!