Cleared for takeoff: A behind-the-scenes look at how base keeps flightline open during winter weather

  • Published
  • By Matthew Clouse
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Rome Alcantara has one of the best office views on base.

“Don’t let the commander know; he may want to steal it,” the 88th Operations Support Squadron airfield manager said while laughing.

His office is on the air traffic control tower’s second floor with a panoramic view of the flightline. On this cloudy, snow-free January day, the flightline was busy. As he worked on his computer, a C-17 Globemaster III and F-15 Eagle were performing touch-and-go landings.

“You don’t have an airfield without a runway. If aircraft can’t land or depart, what’s the point of the Air Force base?” he asked.

His No. 1 priority as airfield manager is keeping the flightline open. An easy task when the weather cooperates. But when winter weather strikes, Alcantara is the one who decides whether the 18 million square feet of concrete is safe for aircraft to take off or land.

Snow begins to fall

At the north end of the runway, the 88th Civil Engineer Squadron’s snow-removal team gets in its trucks. The snow team has the same equipment as Chicago O’Hare International Airport. It has eight snowplows, five brooms and three blowers – equipment necessary to keep the flightline clear.

“We normally have seven or eight airfield operators out there at all times,” said Harold Honeycutt, 88 CES pavement, equipment and grounds supervisor. “We start by sending out the brooms. But depending on the weight of the snow or how much accumulation we’ve gotten, brooms are no longer effective. That’s when we get out a plow or two, and they’ll start pushing snow out of the way and the brooms follow behind them.

“Our third piece of equipment is the blowers. Imagine your regular sidewalk blower just 100 times bigger. The plows will push the snow and pile it up in a nice tight line. Then the blower will come and shoot it into the grass.”

The snow team is led by Snow One and assigned by Honeycutt. Snow One is in constant contact with Alcantara and his airfield management team via a land-mobile radio.

Personnel communicate in real-time how high the snow is close to the taxiway and if the wind is blowing it on the runway, factors the airfield management team needs to determine if the runway should be open or closed.

“There’s constant communication between our team and the snow team,” Alcantara said. “I’ve worked with Honeycutt for close to 20 years and we have an excellent working relationship.”

Determining if the runway is safe

The flightline is 2.5 miles long and it takes five brooms, driving in a staggered formation, three passes to clear the width of the runway.

“It has to be cleaned off until we see pavement, from grass to grass,” Honeycutt said.

Behind the brooms, an airfield management team member drives a pickup truck with a runway-friction device attached to the back. The device is a computerized tire that measures the distance it takes to stop.

“We lower the wheel and drive 30 to 40 miles per hour,” Alcantara said. “Then we hit the brakes and the device calculates the braking action for that piece of pavement. That information is then uploaded to a website where pilots can see what time the test was done and if the surface conditions are good.”

An airfield management official is always driving the truck and testing the runway during a snowstorm. But sometimes, technology isn’t needed to determine if the runway should be closed.

“When it comes to icy conditions, we err on the side of safety,” Alcantara said. “If we are driving on the runway and can’t stop, we’ll close the airfield.”

Real-time data

Back in Base Ops, the airfield management team calls Snow One to give an air traffic update so it can determine what needs cleared first.

“We are always in constant communication because we’re constantly reprioritizing what needs cleared due to an unscheduled landing or takeoff,” Honeycutt said.

Each taxiway and runway that has or has not been cleared is then recorded into a digital airfield map.

“This system is a requirement in the control tower,” Alcantara said. “The map has every taxiway and runway broken into individual sections. We then click on each section and select whether it’s open, closed or suspended.”

That information is uploaded to the same website as the runway-friction device, giving pilots, air traffic controllers and base leadership real-time data on flightline conditions. 

Team of professionals

Both the airfield management and snow-removal teams are considered mission-essential employees, which means they still go to work when the base closes due to weather.

“I can’t stress it enough: The airfield would not be open without my team,” Alcantara proclaimed. “They drive through the most treacherous snow to get to work, and it’s a testament to them and their dedication to the job.”

The airfield management team consists of nine personnel with a minimum of two people working together per shift. They work eight-hour shifts but sometimes stay the night so they don’t have to worry about driving through bad weather the following day.

“They’ll sleep in the crew lounge,” Alcantara added. “It’s not the most comfortable, but it’s better than being stranded on the side of the road.”

Meanwhile, the snow-removal team consists of 16 members. They’re split into two teams and work 12-hour shifts.

On days with little snow at Wright-Patt, the team supports other 88 CES shops. But there have been times, such as last year’s active winter, when drivers are plowing snow for weeks.

“These guys are determined, but if you’re working 12 hours a day for two weeks straight, you’re going to get fatigued,” Honeycutt said while reminiscing the days when he drove a snowplow. “It’s not easy. You must be attentive and try your best to stay focused because there’s a large truck in front of you.”

Honeycutt says another obstacle drivers face is the boredom of going back and forth on a runway for half the day.      

“You can’t have music playing too loud because you to have to listen to Snow One in case a plane comes in for a landing,” he added. “All you can do is open a window and get cold to wake you up a little bit.”