Airfield Envy

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Who can see a pic like this and not be envious? I know I can’t! Photo by @41satmanDan

I know it’s not good to be envious of others, but sometimes I can’t help it. It’s not that I don’t love where I work and what I do – because I truly do! It’s just that there are so many other amazing airports and interesting jobs out there… I can’t help wanting to be a part of it all.

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Not an RJ.  Not landing at the passenger airport.

The passenger airport where my office is located is officially categorized as “medium sized” in terms of the amount and type of commercial traffic that we have. That translates into lots and lots of ERJs, CRJs, B737s and A319/20s, along with some Mad Dogs. Other than Air Canada, we have no regular service from international carriers. It’s a little hard to look at the variety of planes flying into places like O’Hare or Atlanta or JFK and not be a bit jealous.

And before you all point it out, yes I KNOW we actually get an interesting variety of airplanes at the cargo airport. The problem is, my office isn’t down there so I rarely get to see them. Plus they have an annoying habit of sneaking in and out in the middle of the night. Supposedly that’s just what cargo planes do, but I’m pretty sure they do it on purpose to taunt me!

kbosThen there’s the runways. At the passenger airport we have a very respectable set of parallel runways. Same at the cargo airport. They suit our needs quite adequately. But… well… they’re not very imaginative. Other airports have really upped their runway game. Take O’Hare for example.  It has a variety of runway sizes and orientations. Or what about Boston Logan whose runways all seem to intersect with each other.  I can only imagine how that went down:

Airport Management: “We need to add another runway.”

Planner: “OK. How about… here.” *draws a random line across the diagram*

Airport Management: “But… that cuts across other runways!”

Planner: “No worries – ATC will take care of it.”

Airport Management: “Oh, right!”

It’s not just the other airports I’m a bit jealous of. It’s also the people who get to be out on the airfield every day. I’m sure right now my Ops and Airfield friends are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Right. YOU come out here and work when it’s 100 degrees. Or in the pouring rain. Or during a blizzard. See how jealous you are THEN!” OK, OK – I get it. Every job has aspects that are substantially less than enjoyable. No, I don’t think it would be fun to have to scoop bird pieces off the runway or be on call or work nights. But you have to admit, the perks are pretty damn awesome!

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That whole working during a blizzard thing actually looks really cool! I am so totally jealous! Photo by Francis Colacino

The ops and airfield teams get to see sunrises and sunsets from out on the airfield, which, as everyone knows, is the best place to see them. They get to work in all kinds of really cool equipment, like plows and brooms (and maybe even stairs trucks). They get up-close and personal with all types of airplanes. They get to drive all over the airport property including up and down the runways! (Don’t underestimate how awesome that is.)

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Love this tail! Jealous on so many levels here… Photo by Tom Rainey @traineyjr

Plus they have the satisfaction of knowing that all those happy reunions taking place in the terminal are happening because of their hard work. If the ops and airfield teams stop showing up, everything would shut down pretty fast. Whereas if the finance and accounting department was to suddenly get sucked into another dimension, it would probably be a week or two before anyone noticed.

Employee One: “Hey – didn’t we used to have an accounting department?”

Employee Two: “Oh yeah! I wonder what ever happened to those guys?”

Employee One: “Dunno. Good thing the payroll department is still here.”

Lest you think I’m being a total whiner, I’m not. I may be envious, but I haven’t forgotten how lucky I am to be able to work where I do. I have had some amazing experiences that I couldn’t have had anywhere else. Besides, it doesn’t matter that I’ve seen thousands of RJ departures – every time one takes off I still stop to watch. Because flying is magic and aviation is fascinating and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

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Brooms in action with a gorgeous sky. Wow! Photo by Jeremy R (Special thanks to Jason C)

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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The Two (ATC) Towers

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For as long as I can remember I have always dreamed of going up into an ATC tower. I park in the shadow of one every day and I often find myself gazing up at it and thinking about all the activity going on up there, not to mention the amazing view! So you can imagine my surprise and giddy delight when I got to visit not one but TWO ATC towers (at two different airports) in the last month.

Snow Tower

The passenger airport where I work has a lovely tower that was built just a few years ago. Wisely, they don’t allow me anywhere near it. Fortunately, the old tower still exists and is currently used in the winter for snow ops. As part of the deice pad control training I’m currently undergoing, I was given the opportunity to visit the tower to get a better view of the deicing area. Getting into the tower involves either riding up in the world’s tiniest elevator, or walking up roughly a million stairs.  I chose the elevator. When the doors opened, the view that awaited me was worth every claustrophobic moment.

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Old tower at the pax airport, now the snow tower.

My first thought was that I am moving my desk to the tower ASAP, crazy tiny elevator be damned! Being able to see pretty much the entire airport was simply spectacular. But then it was pointed out to me that there is no longer any AC in the tower which makes it unbearable in the summer. Neither is there any heat. The snow team uses portable heaters to stay warm during snow events.

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New tower at the pax airport.

Once I was able to tear myself away from the amazing view out the window I was struck by size of the cab. It wasn’t tiny but it didn’t feel as big as I had thought it would. I tried to visualize all the ATC equipment that would have been in there. I suspect it was a bit crowded. The snow team’s equipment consists of some hand-held radios and a couple of laptops. There’s more than enough room for that as well as every single item currently crammed into my cubicle.

The Cargo Tower

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Old tower at the cargo airport, now gone.

As excited as I was about visiting the snow tower, I was completely beside myself when I found out my department would be getting a tour of the brand-new ATC tower at the cargo airport. Construction was completed this past spring.  The old tower had been built in the 50s when the cargo airport was still an Air Force Base. There was no elevator. To get to the top controllers had to climb stairs most of the way, and then climb ladders the final two floors. Once the new tower was ready it took 6 hours of cautious and steady work to transition over.

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New tower at the cargo airport.

We began our tour on the 5th floor in the snow ops room. In the same way that Ops uses the Snow Tower at the pax airport, they will use this room to coordinate activities during snow events. The view is pretty spectacular but not nearly as awesome as our next stop – the top!

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We were greeted by the two controllers on duty. They are both contractors – one a retired Marine, the other retired FAA. They explained the basics about what they do and showed us some of the equipment – the radar, the AWOS display, the flight strips, etc. They talked about what it was like working in the old tower and how they assisted in the set-up of the new tower.

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KC-135s for the Air National Guard parked behind a UPS cargo plane.

Then they answered questions. I asked about approach control – I suspected that it is located at the pax airport and I was right. I asked about the airspace – the pax airport is Class C. The cargo airport, however, is Class D (as are the other two airports in the area, including our GA airport). I asked about what kind of traffic they typically handle. Obviously there are lots of cargo planes flying in, but I found out that on nice days they see a lot of GA planes as well. Apparently the two 12,000 foot runways are great places to practice touch-and-goes.

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After answering questions the controllers asked if we’d like to go out on the catwalk that surrounds the cab. Would I? Oh hell YES! Coolest walk-around EVER! Thanks to low cloud cover and the fact that most cargo activity happens at night, there were no planes in the pattern while I was out there. That’s probably a good thing. If there had been they’d have had one heck of a hard time getting me back inside.

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Eventually I did (reluctantly) go back in. We spent a few more minutes chatting with the controllers. It turns out the one who is retired from the FAA used to work at the pax airport. He started in the old tower (the snow tower) then moved to the new one. This means he has worked at all four towers at both airports. To my surprise, he spoke quite fondly of the snow tower. He said that the new tower is nice, but it’s somewhat sterile. The old tower felt more comfortable. I completely agree. And I’m still thinking about relocating my desk in there. Or maybe I’ll move to this cute little room at the cargo airport. The view is still great, the HVAC is better and the elevator is substantially less terrifying.

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A bit cramped and a bit lower to the ground, but who cares.  Still a great view!