Here We Snow Again!

33651840_UnknownI 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!

img_6528If 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.

33651488_UnknownPreparation 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.

IMG_2504This 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!

33651984_unknown.jpgOnce 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.

33651568_Unknown (1)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.

IMG_3338I 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!

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A350 and the FBO

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Photo by Andrew Stricker

I recently had one of those weeks that reminds me just how lucky I am to be able to work where I do. Any time I get out onto the airfield is exciting, but getting onto the airfield twice in one week at two different airports? That’s nothing short of total awesomeness!

YAY 350!

A friend at Delta gave me a heads-up that one of their brand-new A350s would be doing some training flights into my airport. Sweet! We rarely see airplanes that large or that new, so this was definitely a big deal. Naturally I planned to go upstairs and watch it come in. Then I got an email from the Operations Manager asking if I’d like to ride out onto the airfield to see the arrival. Would I? Are you kidding me? Hell yes I would!

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We hopped into one of the Ops vehicles about 15 minutes or so before the A350 was due to arrive. With a little help from our friends in the ATC tower we confirmed which runway would be used and got permission to position ourselves on a taxiway not too far from the anticipated touch-down point. We had to wait another few minutes before the A350 finally appeared in the distance. It got closer and closer and before we knew it the plane was roaring by us in all its glory. Best plane spotting moment EVER!

 

The plane wasn’t scheduled to stay long but thanks to that magic radio connection to ATC we were able to recommend a good parking spot on the east pad… which we immediately drove to so we could take more pics. There were several other vehicles circling the plane like sharks. Plus there were observers in the old snow tower and there was even someone from Ops on the terminal roof!

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After about ten minutes the A350 was ready to leave. We decided that just off the end of the runway would be the ideal location for viewing the departure.  We hopped out of the truck and watched as the plane came straight at us. Then it lifted into the air and flew directly over our heads.  There’s only one word to properly describe the entire experience: Wow!

FB-OH!

FullSizeRender (87)So how do you top off a week that had such a stunning beginning? Why with a visit to the FBO, of course! At the cargo airport the FBO is run by the Authority so we are very involved with paying their bills and invoicing the airlines for their services. Getting to spend a few hours there was an important learning experience. And, of course, the avgeek in me was a kid in a candy store.

The original plan had been to help work a flight. Sadly the plane was delayed so that didn’t happen. But you know me – I wasn’t about to let that stop me from enjoying every moment I was there. We spent some time reviewing spreadsheets and other administrative items. Then we spent time chatting about life at the FBO. I learned that some airlines require four star hotels for their crews. Others have extensive catering requirements. Still others want flexible transportation options. And who makes all of this happen? Yep – your friendly FBO staff. It can definitely be a challenging job at times.

 

Then we headed out for a tour of the facilities and (at my request) the ground equipment. We got to see the large loaders they use for big cargo pallets and the tail stands they use to protect planes from tipping backwards during unloading. We got to examine tugs and fuel trucks. We even got to look inside the containers used for shipping horses. But then we got up close and personal with two of my favorite support vehicles…

Deice Trucks

 

We have two deice vehicles – one open bucket and one enclosed. I thought for sure that the enclosed one would be preferred. However, the FBO staff informed me that operating the enclosed deicer can be challenging. It’s hard to see out the windshield so they often have to open the side window, which means they get just as wet as they would in the open bucket. Plus they claim that using the hose is easier than using two joysticks. Since none of them were crazy enough to let me give the deicers a try I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.

STAIRS TRUCK!!!

 

Then came the moment of all moments: I got to open the door of the stairs truck and sit inside! I got to take pics! I got to touch the controls! I GOT TO SIT IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT! Sadly, I didn’t get to drive it. Doh! That’s OK though – I am one giant step closer to achieving that dream.

Do I have an awesome job or what? I may not love every aspect of what I do, but I sure love the heck out of where I work and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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The Teams Behind the Scenes

IMG_2671For people living in the United States, late November kicks off one of the busiest travel seasons of the year. Over 28 million people are expected to take to the skies over the Thanksgiving holiday alone.  Travelers are counting on the airlines to get them safely to their destinations. What they may not know, however, is that there are a whole host of airport personnel working behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly.

Custodians

Yes, the custodial teams are responsible for keeping the airport clean, but they actually do so much more. Custodians spend a lot of time out and about in the terminal and often find themselves on the front lines of customer care. We’ve had custodians buy food for stranded passengers, search for (and find) lost jewelry, and one quick-thinking custodian even provided a pair of uniform pants to an unfortunate traveler who spilled a drink all over himself.  Our custodians have also been trained to watch for suspected victims of human trafficking and to report suspicious activity to the airport police.  Never underestimate the impact that a solid, compassionate custodial team can make.

IMG_2709Building Maintenance

Like any other building, airport terminals require plenty of upkeep. When a pipe bursts in the bathroom, or when there’s a power outage, or when the baggage system stops working, who are you going to call? Yep – building maintenance. If they can’t fix it, they’ll bring in someone who can. Next time you find yourself walking through an airport terminal in the middle of the night, remember that folks from the Building Maintenace department are there too, keeping an eye on things.

Operations

The Operations Department is charged with making sure airport operations go smoothly at all hours. This includes things like issuing NOTAMs, chasing off flocks of birds and coordinating snow operations. A few years ago an airline that is not based at my airport had to divert in the middle of the night due to mechanical issues. Since the airline had no staff on site it was the Ops team that arranged a gate, greeted passengers and ordered pizza for them while a maintenance crew was being summoned.

IMG_2504Airfield Maintenance

The airfield teams are charged with making sure the runways and taxiways remain clean and clear. Too wet? They’ll suck up the excess water. Too snowy? They’ll get the plows going. Too much rubber build-up? Summon the brooms! If a big winter storm is forecast the teams will sometimes stay at one of the airport hotels so that they won’t get stranded at home.

Communications Center

The Communication Center personnel act as the eyes and ears of the airport. They monitor the fire and security systems, dispatch police and ARFF as needed and just generally watch over things. Ever gone out to your car in an airport parking lot only to find it won’t start? I have. Calling AAA is useless since they don’t have access to gated parking areas, so guess who I called for help? Yep – the Communications Center. They dispatched a service truck to help get me on my way.

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Airlines and ATC

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout-out to the airlines and ATC as well. Pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, rampers, ticket agents, station masters, mechanics, dispatchers and air traffic controllers will all be giving up time with their families to make sure passengers get home to theirs. So if you’ll be traveling by air this holiday season, give your flight crews a smile and spare a thought for all the teams working behind the scenes to get you safely on your way.

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Radio Active

fullsizerender-61As you may recall, I have been training to help the Ops Department manage the deice pad on frosty mornings. This process involves driving around in an ops vehicle, giving taxi instructions on the radio, keeping a log of all the traffic through the deice pad and acting as a follow-me when needed. If that sounds like a lot to learn, it is! At this point I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the different RJs apart, I’ve memorized the call signs and ICAO codes for each airline and I can successfully manage the log. I’ve ridden along and watched the deice pad management process enough times now that I have a decent understanding of how it works. So what’s the next step? Talking on the radio.

img_7586Say What???

Yes, you read that correctly. Me. Talking on the radio. To pilots. And deice crews. And even Air Traffic Controllers. It’s unthinkable. It’s ridiculous. But, it’s absolutely true! And it’s actually kinda cool! As a recap for anyone who many not be aware, I am not a pilot. I do not work in ATC. I have zero experience talking on the radio. And if you told me a year ago that I’d be doing this I’d have laughed hysterically.

LiveATC and Radar Contact

One of the biggest things that has helped me prepare to talk on the radio has been listening to others do it. I discovered LiveATC.net many years ago and was instantly addicted. I like to listen to the feeds from LAX, ORD, ATL and CLT. These days I find myself listening to ground controllers a lot. There are many similarities between what a ground controller does, and what we do when we manage the deice pad – we clear pilots to push back, give taxi instructions and hand them off to other frequencies. img_7523

Another wonderful resource has been ATCCommunication.com and, more specifically, the Radar Contact podcast. I’ve been listening to the show for awhile now – it is very informative and I’ve learned a lot. When I realized that it was time for me to start talking on the radio, I was pretty darn nervous about it. What if I screw up? What if I say something wrong? Then I went back and listened to the episode “Making Mistakes on the Aircraft Radio.” Although the focus is on pilots, it was a good reminder for me as well. I don’t have to be perfect on the radio. I just need to be as clear as I can and not beat myself up if I make mistakes. img_7594

So Far, So Good

I haven’t done a whole lot of radio work yet, but what I’ve done so far has gone OK. The airplanes got into and out of the deice pad successfully and everyone seemed to understand me. When I get nervous I tend to talk quickly, so I try to force myself to speak slowly and carefully. I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask questions if I don’t understand or if I miss a piece of information I need – like what gate the plane is pushing back from. I promise I’m being good and sticking to standard phraseology. I won’t lie though, there are some things I wish I could say…

I CAN say: “Southwest 123, push back at your discretion, give us a call when you are ready to taxi.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey Southwest, just how fast do you taxi anyway?”

I CAN say: “American 456, taxi eastbound via the ramp.”

I CAN’T say: “Please don’t retire the maddog! Please! Please! Please!”

I CAN say: “Delta 789, contact Ground on 121.9 and let them know you’re on the north side of the pad, ready to depart.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey – can I borrow your stairs truck?”

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You never know what interesting things you might find sitting around the office