Award-Winning Winter Ops Team Keeps Anchorage Int'l Open

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

No one at Ted Stevens Anchorage International (ANC) can recall ever having to close the vital Alaskan airport because of snow or ice. Once, yes, because of winds in excess of 100 miles per hour, and once due to volcanic ash from Mount Redoubt; but no one remembers a snow or ice closure.

ANC’s accomplishment is especially remarkable when you consider that winters in Anchorage stretch from September through May and produce on average 65 snow and ice events. A successful winter ops strategy is crucial, as the airport is an important link for passenger flights and ranks as the world’s fourth busiest cargo airport.

Project: Snow & Ice Removal
Location: Ted Stevens Anchorage (AK) Int’l Airport
Airfield Maintenance Staff: 109 personnel (primarily equipment operators, mechanics & electricians)
90-Vehicle Fleet: 16 plow trucks; 12 tow-behind brooms; 3 deicer trucks; 4 tracked dozers; 15 wheel loaders; 1 groomer; 8 graders; 8 sand trucks; 11 dump trucks; 11 snow blowers; 1 multifunction unit
Pavement Maintained: Approx. 33 million sq. ft. of airfield surfaces; 62 lane miles of roadway
Avg. Snow & Ice Events: 65/season
Deicer Products: New Deal Sodium Formate/Acetate Blend; Cryotech NAAC & Liquid Deicers
Avg. Product Used/Season: 180,000 gal of liquid deicer; 2,100 tons of solid deicer; 4,500 tons of sand
Recognitions: Balchen/Post Award for Outstanding Achievement in Airport Snow & Ice Control — 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2012

Equipment Mfgs & Suppliers
Plow Trucks: Oshkosh Corp.
Tow-Behind Brooms: M-B Companies
Deicer Trucks: Batts
Tracked Dozers: Caterpillar, Komatsu America Corp.
Wheel Loaders: Volvo, Caterpillar, John Deere, Case Construction
Groomer: BRP
Graders: Caterpillar, Volvo
Sand & Dump Trucks: Freightliner Int’l
Snow Blowers: Oshkosh Corp., Wausau Everest, Zaugg Rolba, Stewart & Stevenson
Multifunction Unit: Haigie GST (distributed by Fortbrand Services)
Sweeper Bristles: SIB Brushteck Bristles (distributed by Myslik)
Scrubber/Vacuum Vehicle: Triverus (distributed by M-B Companies)

Airport Manager John Parrott is proud of ANC’s field maintenance motto — “We never close” — and his crews’ success in achieving it. Five Balchen/Post awards for outstanding achievement in airport snow and ice control from the Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives validate his assessment.

“It’s a matter of personal pride for our field maintenance staff that they have never been defeated by snow,” Parrott explains. “And we say that with appropriate reverence and respect for Mother Nature.”

The state’s aviation structure reflects similar respect. ANC and Fairbanks International Airport, both state-owned and operated facilities, serve as alternates for each other and together comprise the Alaska International Airport System.  

“When you start talking snow and weather, having a sister airport a couple hundred miles to the north is an important safety net,” Parrott explains. “It’s important for us to be reliable. People flying nine or 10 hours over the Pacific want to feel assured they have a place to land when they get to Alaska. Although we’ve only had to close twice, having Fairbanks as a safety net is key to our business model.”

Structured for Autonomy

“Self-sufficiency is an important part of the equation,” advises Parrott. “We can’t call on city road crews to stop plowing the streets and help us out on the runways. We’re it.”

ANC’s airfield maintenance department consequently consists of 109 employees, primarily equipment operators, mechanics and electricians. Training, practice and repetition are stressed throughout the department.

Preseason equipment training begins in late summer, with crews hitting the airfield to practice maneuvers they will follow throughout the winter season. Specific equipment formations and sweep patterns are practiced.

“We run through the entire snow removal sequence, so operators familiarize themselves with the equipment after being away from it for four or five months,” explains Airfield Maintenance Manager Zaramie Lindseth. “It also helps us identify any equipment problems and makes sure we’re ready to go.”

The airport owns and maintains 90 pieces of heavy snow removal equipment: 16 plow trucks, 12 tow-behind brooms, three deicer trucks, four tracked dozers, 15 wheel loaders, one groomer, eight graders, eight sand trucks, 11 dump trucks, 11 snow blowers and one multifunction unit.

Airfield maintenance crews cover 830 acres of movement surfaces  — approximately 33 million square feet of pavement, Lindseth informs. “And that doesn’t include landside surfaces, like parking lots and 62 lane miles of roadway around the airport,” he specifies.

The airport has three runways: two 10,500 feet long by 150 feet wide and one 12,400 feet by 200 feet. When a snow or ice event occurs, or sooner if poor weather conditions are forecasted, airfield maintenance crews work in 12-hour shifts around the clock until the weather subsides.

Well-Oiled Machine

Instrument runways and their corresponding taxiways, emergency response avenues and glideslope areas are the top priority. Ramp areas, beginning with the main lead-in lines and taxi lines to the terminals, along with refueling areas and small aircraft taxiways are next in line. The third priority includes public access roads, public access areas and all other roads and areas falling under the purview of the airport’s snow removal operations. Snow is pushed or trucked to disposal sites on the airport grounds where it is stacked and stored until it melts. (See sidebar more details.)

Snow removal on runways and taxiways normally begins with sweeping operations. Runway brooms towed behind fifth-wheel trucks equipped with rubber plow blades remove the majority of the snow from paved surfaces while limiting damage to lighting systems and pavements. Snow blowers follow the brooms, picking up windrows and casting snow away from runway and taxiway lights. If friction tests reveal slick surface conditions, sand, sodium acetate, sodium formate, potassium acetate or various combinations of these compounds is applied to improve braking action. Lastly, crews apply sand to improve aircraft braking and turning.

Ramp areas are cleaned with loader-mounted plows. If required, crews use graders equipped with steel blades to remove compacted snow and ice and apply sand or chemicals if needed. 

Snow contaminated with petroleum or fuel products is treated as a spill and handled accordingly.

The airport initiates ice control procedures immediately preceding precipitation and continues their use until ice is removed or has dissipated from operational areas. Temperatures dictate whether solid deicing products, deicer fluids or mechanical equipment are used to remove ice from surfaces. Liquid deicer or other deicing chemicals are applied to prevent ice buildup, and sand that meets FAA-approved specifications is applied to mitigate slick surfaces. If ice buildup on paved surfaces exceeds 1/8 inch, snow brooms and steel-blade graders are used to reduce thickness to the point where ice control chemicals are effective. The airport prohibits the use of calcium chloride, sodium chloride and other metal-corrosive chemicals on surfaces where aircraft operate.

All snow removal vehicles operating on active runways and taxiways are equipped with two-way radios to allow communication with the air traffic control tower and to facilitate communication with other operators, supervisors and airport operations. When multiple vehicles are operating in a controlled airfield area, the lead vehicle serves as the point of contact with the control tower. All other vehicle operators monitor the communications and react in accordance with tower or lead vehicle instructions.

Dealing with ice is ANC’s biggest challenge, notes Lindseth. “We feel confident in our abilities to handle most snow events, but freezing rain makes it extremely challenging to stay ahead of airfield conditions,” he explains. “And it’s very expensive.”

Provisioning with the right amount of chemicals is another perennial issue. “It’s not like the lower 48 — where if you need more chemicals, you can get them trucked in from a couple hundred miles away,” Lindseth explains. “Here, chemical reorders come in by boat and are 45 days away. Even though we forecast out and try to have enough chemicals here before the winter season begins, we can only store so much.”

This winter, which has included more freezing rain than usual, was a particular challenge. “Making sure we have enough product available is one of the most nerve-wracking decisions we have to make,” he reflects. “On average, we go through 180,000 gallons of liquid deicer, 2,100 tons of solid deicer and 4,500 tons of sand annually.”

Staff-Driven Success

As a five-time winner of the Balchen/Post Award, ANC is considered an industry leader in snow and ice removal. It even influences equipment trends, notes Parrott. After the airport’s field maintenance staff developed automatic adjusters to control the tilt and pressure of its brooms and prevent unnecessary wear and tear on broom bristles, manufacturers began offering them as an option to other operators as well.

“It’s all about the people,” Lindseth concurs. “You can have all the fancy equipment in the world, but it’s our talented and professional crews that make us successful.”

ANC’s management of a 2003 snow event illustrates their point: “We got 27 inches in one day,” Parrott recalls. “That was a challenging day, but we were able to meet our goal of keeping two runways open and rotating through. The equipment never stopped moving. We were falling behind, but we never had to cry ‘uncle.’ It was like a military operation and amazing to watch. That’s a testimony to the dedication and cooperation of our crews and the FAA air traffic management folks.”

Double-Decker Snow Dump

With necessity as the mother of invention, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) and its airfield maintenance crew became the proud parents of a two-story snow storage site during the winter of 2011-2012.

Snow removed from the runways, ramps and other critical areas doesn’t melt for months; so the airport maintains on-site storage areas, explains ANC Airfield Maintenance Manager Zaramie Lindseth. Crews haul snow and ice from operational surface areas to designated dump sites, where it remains for the rest of the season.

Last winter, however, ANC reached its storage capacity when the area received a record snowfall of 134 inches. “Our massive snow storage sites were nearing capacity after continuously stacking snow with our tracked dozers,” Lindseth recalls. “That’s when our airfield maintenance crews put their heads together and came up with a plan.”

The airport deployed aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicles to spray water on the massive snow piles, and waited a couple of days for the surface to freeze solid. Then, crews constructed an ice road leading to the top of the pile, which created a second level — effectively doubling the airport’s storage capacity. Dump trucks deposited loads of snow in a defined area on the second level, specifically prepared for that purpose, and then crews repositioned it with tracked dozers.

“Obviously, we ensured the integrity of the upper portion in a phased approach,” explains Lindseth. “As temperatures dropped, we reinforced the ice road with additional applications of water to build strength in the ramps to the top.”

When temperatures rose enough, crews stopped running trucks to the upper level to prevent rutting up the access points. “Many times it was more effective to use the upper level during the evening, when the temperatures were at their coldest,” Lindseth recalls. “These decisions were made on a daily basis after evaluating the conditions.”

By the end of the season, ANC’s snow pile was over 80 feet high, and crews estimated that it contained approximately 6.2 million tons of snow.



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