Clearing the Way

Airport crews work nonstop to keep runways open

Posted: Monday, December 04, 2006

Blades, blowers and teamwork. You need a few things to keep an airport running in the middle of a snowstorm.

For weeks, that's just what the staff at Juneau International Airport has done. In the face of a whopping 79 inches of snow, whiteouts and subfreezing temperatures, the airport has yet to close its two runways. Flights have been delayed or canceled because of bad visibility, but the runways have always been open.

David Palmer, manager of the airport, said he has a top-notch staff. Since the snow began falling, his crew of roughly 13 maintenance workers and one mechanic have been working nonstop in 12-hour shifts.

"These guys work really well together and they're really proud of the job they do and they're proud of the fact they've kept the runway open through all the conditions we've had," Palmer said.

Palmer said his staff has done a great job, but he never said they have an easy job.

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The maintenance operations supervisor, Lamar Riddle, known by most as "Lumpy," said that as soon as a quarter inch of snow settles on the runway, it's time to bring out the machines.

And what machines they are. For anyone who played with Tonka toys as a child, working at the airport is definitely a step in the right direction.

At roughly $300,000 apiece, the snowblowers are as expensive as they are impressive. The snowblowers tower over their operators. Most of the equipment the clearing staff uses are roughly the size of a one-bedroom house. They are capable of moving 3,000 tons of snow an hour.

The staff can clean one of the 8,456-foot-long runways and have it ready for takeoff or landing in 15 minutes. It's common for the blowers to hit the runway right before a plane lands.

The cabins of the blowers look much like the cockpits of the planes they protect. A blower operator has to contend with multiple radios, two steering devices and a few dozen switches.

"It can get pretty busy in one of these things," Riddle said and shrugged while driving, talking on two radios and getting ready to clean a taxiway.

The airport doesn't just have blowers to tend the runways. It also has an armada of scrapers and other gadgets, including one device that sprays diluted heated uric acid on the runway, and another device that Riddle tows around to measure how slippery the runways are.

Comparing his tenure as city manager to his current job at the airport, Palmer said, "This is way more fun. You get all these cool toys."

Frank Mason, the shop mechanic at the airport, said that despite the barrage of snow, things have been running smoothly with the equipment.

"So far it's been pretty good. Actually we've had one mechanical breakdown," Mason said. "I don't remember the machines running solid for three weeks straight."

• Will Morris may be contacted at

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