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Snow-removal arsenal, hard-working crews keep Kalamazoo airport runways clear

M-Live | Rob Wetterholt, Jr. | February 5, 2014

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KALAMAZOO, MI – Airfield technician Chris Sieklucki, along with a dedicated team of airport employees, can have snow cleared from Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport’s 6,500-foot main runway in about 15 minutes.

Using plows, brooms and a snow-throwing vehicle that can sling snow more than 400 feet through the air, Sieklucki’s team is constantly on call to keep all vital surfaces at the airport clear of snow and ice.

“We will do what it takes to get everybody in here,” Sieklucki said. “And that’s the truth.”

Removing snow and ice from vital surfaces at the airport is a job that is of paramount importance during the winter months. Working well before the first flight departs and staying on duty until the last flight arrives means that crews work grueling hours with shifts sometimes approaching 20 hours.

“Operation technicians will come out during the night at some point and establish if they’re going to call us in,” Sieklucki said. “The call-in time is anywhere from 3 to 3:30 in the morning. We’ll get on site around 4 or 4:30 and we’ll start clearing the runway for that first departure. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) gives us an hour before that flight.”

With two teams sharing the workload of clearing primary surfaces, including runways, taxiways and ramp space, of snow and ice at the airport, the goal for these teams is to keep the airport open at all cost.

“They’ll work on all those and get them down to bare pavement so they have good braking action and so the planes can depart on time and get out of here,” Sieklucki said. “The primary surfaces are our main concern because they carry the airlines, our money makers.”

Heavy responsibility requires heavy machinery

Nestled near the intersection of two runways is a small hangar that houses everything required for the quick and efficient removal of snow from 12,700 feet of runways, more than 18,700 feet of taxiways and about 330,000 square feet of ramp space.

Plow trucks with blades ranging from 18 to 24 feet in length are parked face-to-face with one another, broom trucks with giant circular brushes featuring a mixture of steel and plastic bristles appear ready to dust off anything that gets in their way and a snow-throwing vehicle with intertwined steel blades has the ability to heave heavy snow more than 400 feet through the air sits in a corner, ready for use at a moment’s notice.

The newest vehicle in the airport’s snow removal fleet is a combination vehicle that can plow snow and broom runways, taxiways and ramp spaces clear of snow all at once. Purchased in the fall of 2012 and costing roughly $650,000, the MB5 Mid-Mount Broom is the newest and most state-of-the-art-machine in the airport’s snow removal arsenal.

With plows pushing snow off to the side of runways, taxiways and ramp spaces, piles of snow that could potentially snag an aircraft’s wingtip become an issue and so the airport also has a vehicle that is designed to remove the mounds of snow.

Launching a steady stream of snow more than 400 feet through the air, away from runways and taxiways, is the job of the Sno-Go, a 575-horsepower snow-throwing vehicle with steel blades that follow plows down the runway. Complying with FAA regulations dealing with how high snow banks can be at certain distances around the runway, the Sno-Go ensures that Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport is kept open and safe for arriving and departing aircraft.

Measuring safety, measuring cost

Maintaining runways, taxiways and ramp spaces requires that personnel at the airport sometimes have to take extra measures during the winter months to ensure that the airport can stay open and that flights can continue their arrivals and departures.

Jay Waalkes, the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport operations supervisor, has been in his current position for seven years and says that measuring things like stopping distances and the amount of friction that aircraft will have to use while braking is crucial in keeping the airport open.

“The only time we actually close the airport is if we have ‘nil’ braking conditions,” Waalkes said. “We have an agreement with the FAA, and the tower automatically closes the runway.”

In order to measure braking conditions, Waalkes said, a crew drives a truck equipped with a decelerometer down the runway and brakes at three main points on the runway — where an aircraft will touch down, the space it will use to roll out and where the aircraft will finally stop. Based on readings from the decelerometer, airport crews are able to determine whether or not the runway is safe for use.

All of the work that goes into plowing and measuring safety conditions at the airport has required additional, rented equipment and lots of overtime.

With snow piling up around the airport, a front-end loader was rented for a month this winter to assist with the pick up and removal of plowed snow, Waalkes said.

Overtime, and lots of it, is something that has had to be dealt with in order to keep the airport open. With crews working around the clock, airport workers have already collected more overtime this winter than they did for the entire 2012-2013 winter, Waalkes said.

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