Washington Dulles Tames 2016 Snowzilla With Lessons Learned From 2010 Snowmageddon

Thomas J. Smith
Published in: 

Last winter was particularly rough on Washington, D.C., and its airports. Winter Storm Jonas, or "Snowzilla" as local media dubbed it, dumped 29.3 inches of snow on Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)-the largest amount from an individual storm in the airport's 70-plus-year history. The storm began midday on Friday, Jan. 22, and raged for 36 grueling hours. 

IAD stood ready, however, thanks to lessons it learned during previous blizzards. Snowzilla also blew in and out exactly as forecast. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "was right on the money, down to the time it would come," recalls Steve Settle, the manager of Structures and Grounds at IAD. Meterorlogix, a subscription service that provides the airport with custom weather updates twice daily, sounded the warning bell as early as Monday, predicting at least a foot of snow for the weekend. 

Project: Reopening After Historic Snowfall
Location: Washington Dulles Int'l Airport
Most Recent Blizzard: Winter Storm Jonas, also known as "Snowzilla" 
Timing: Jan. 22 - 24, 2016
Snowfall: 29.3 inches 
Snow Removed From Airfield: 109 million cubic ft.
Total Snow Removed: 124 million cubic ft. (includes parking lots, roadways, etc.) 
Blizzard Staff
Ops    25
Maintenance    285
Financer    9
Contractors    72
Toll Road    30
Total    421
Labor Cost for Full Recall: $25,000/hour
Equipment for Runway Teams
18 multifunction vehicles 
4 dedicated plows
3 dedicated brooms 
9 snow blowers
4 deicer trucks
12 push loaders
2 material spreaders
Equipment Mfrs: Airport Technologies Mauler/MB Industries Broom; John Deere; Kueper; Mack Trucks; Oshkosh; Rolba; Trecan; Wausau
Contractors: Atlantic Contracting & Materials; Aero Snow (Top Dog Services will replace Aero Snow this winter)
Fuel Consumed: 45,000 gallons of diesel fuel; 4,000 gallons of gasoline

With five days notice, the airport began methodically implementing its full recall plan, which mobilizes a workforce of more than 400 employees and outside contractors to attack snow and ice around-the-clock. Executing the plan costs IAD $25,000 per hour in labor alone.  

"A storm as significant and prolonged as Snowzilla demands that the staff and management team pace themselves for the long haul," notes Airport Manager Christopher U. Browne. "Ensuring adequate crew rest, maintaining the equipment, and coordinating the resupply of critical snow supplies are all key elements in restoring the airport to full service following a large snow storm. We are always anxious to meet our passengers' travel needs, but it's critical that we do so safely and efficiently."

In addition to clearing the airfield and airport parking lots, IAD crew are also responsible for removing snow on the Dulles Toll Road and Dulles Access Road-112 lane miles of roadway between the Washington Beltway and the airport. (In addition to operating IAD and Reagan National Airport, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority also manages key roadways associated with IAD.)

During Winter Storm Jonas, IAD's airfield team removed 109 million cubic feet of snow-the equivalent of clearing a 12-inch snowfall off one driving lane from IAD to Breckenridge, CO. With parking lots, roadways and other landside pavement included, the combined snow teams cleared more than 124 million cubic feet of snow.   
On Friday, airfield crews began pre-treating runways shortly after 8 a.m. The full recall went in to effect at 10 a.m., and snow began falling at 12:29 p.m. Airlines continued to fly in and out of IAD on Friday; however, the last departure occurred at 12:50 a.m. on Saturday-
a FedEx cargo plane.

With snow falling at nearly 2 inches per hour, the Operations Department declared whiteout conditions and suspended work crews at 12:50 p.m. Saturday. Crews returned to the runway at 7 p.m. Saturday, and, mercifully, the snow stopped falling about two hours later. 

The airport ended its full recall on Tuesday and pulled its last runway cleanup crew at 6 that evening.

"The entire crew performed magnificently," Browne notes. "The Dulles Airport Council of Airline Managers made special note of their actions, and we received an abundance of favorable and complimentary tweets, emails and comments. As is often the case after a large storm like Snowzilla, Dulles International Airport was 'open and back to business' well before the region's other businesses and transportation facilities."

Although the January blizzard delivered IAD's largest individual snowfall, the airport was also hit with 54 inches during back-to-back blizzards in 2010-a period known as "Snowmageddon." After recovering from that experience, IAD re-wrote its snow removal manual and applied those lessons when battling Snowzilla.

Lesson #1: Don't Open Too Soon
When Dulles reopened on Monday, Jan. 25, at 6:09 a.m., the entire airport was ready to accept an incoming Copa flight from Panama City in Central America. "When we are open, we are truly open-not just the runways operating," Settle specifies. 

"This is a lesson we learned the last time. When we reopened [in 2010] at 6 a.m., there were literally two planes on the horizon. The first was the same Copa flight from Panama and the second one was carrying the Washington Capitals [the area's pro hockey team]. The parking lots were not cleared. The roads were not cleared. It does not do any good to open up a runway just to bring in people if there is nowhere to put them," he reflects. 

This time, however, was different. "It would have been great to open on Sunday," Settle acknowledges. But the parking lots, roadways and access highways were not open The crews took one additional six-hour shift to move more snow so the airport could be fully functional. 

On Sunday morning, officials made the decision to reopen at 6 a.m. Monday. The deadline was not flexible because the first arriving flight would depart Panama City 13 hours before the now-published reopening. The carrier made the decision 17 hours prior to the scheduled landing that the flight would indeed take off as scheduled.

The 11,500-foot-long Runway 1R opened just 15 minutes before Copa 488 landed. On Tuesday, 11,500-foot-long Runway 1C opened at 7:39 a.m. and IAD's crosswind runway, 12-30, opened at 9:58 a.m.

Runway 1L was "allowed to go fallow," explains Settle. The airport chose not to send crews to clear it, allowing Mother Nature to do most of the work. Five days later, crews attacked the remaining snow. 

Lesson #2: Use A Snowcat 
IAD's seven instrument landing system (ILS) antennas present special maintenance challenges during winter storms. The remote equipment is difficult to access and clean, but the airport is restricted to visual flight operations without them.

During the Snowmageddon of 2010, IAD ground crews scrambled to rent a snow groomer, also known as a snowcat, from a local ski resort to clear the critical ILS antennas. In a frustrating twist, the airport was cleared and open but unable to accommodate instrument-aided flight operations until the ILS antennas were cleared. Airfield crews were stuck waiting for outside roads to open so the ski resort could deliver the rented snowcat. 

Before the 2015-16 snow season began, IAD tried to arrange use of a snowcat on a stand-by basis through the airport's procurement process. But no operator was interested in the $2,500 retainer that was offered. "No one wanted to commit a snow groomer because they were making money with it," explains Settle. 

The Monday before the 2016 storm hit, Settle contacted Massanutten Ski Resort, three hours southwest of the airport, and successfully convinced its managers to lease the airport a snow groomer. A snowcat and driver arrived on Thursday night, before the snow started falling. Using GPS readings and a GPS-tagged map, an airport employee guided the snowcat driver around the airfield so the antennas could be cleaned.

On Saturday, shortly before the airfield reached whiteout conditions, crews used the snowcat to lead runway crews back to the ops facility. "In Snowmageddon, we walked out from the fire response gate to the edge of the taxiway to assist the team leader in finding the fire road entrance," Settle recalls. 

The ski resort's equipment and crew were also put to use clearing electrical vaults-a task they completed in 20 minutes. In contrast, Settle estimates that it would have taken a front-end loader four hours to travel the 1.5-mile gravel road to reach just one of the vaults. 

Lesson #3: Better to Melt or Haul Snow Than Push It
After Snowmageddon, the airport authority purchased four snow melters each capable of melting 135 tons of snow in one hour. The new equipment was assigned to Atlantic Contracting & Materials, the contractor hired to clear the gate areas of concourses A and B. United Airlines, which has exclusive use of concourses C and D, hired Aero Snow, which uses nine snow melters.

When snowfall rates reach 6 inches in three hours, it is necessary to use snow melters "because we don't have time to catch up," explains Settle. 

IAD also implemented a new snow-hauling plan to clear the gates and aprons.

Atlantic Contracting used large quarry-size dump trucks with triple the capacity of normal dump trucks. Drivers used the extra-large vehicles to haul snow to the southern most taxiway, which has a wide shoulder and 300-foot deep grassy area. Operators dumped loads of snow as they drove along the taxiway, and two snow blowers followed behind and blew the snow into a pile. "This was a tremendous saver," Settle reflects. "We cut time from 10 minutes per truck to two minutes. This is great when you only have so many trucks. We are going to write this into our next contract for snows greater than 8 inches."

During Snowzilla, crews hauled more than 9,500 loads of snow from the concourse areas.

Lesson #1 for Next Time: Cross-Train
Of the 421 workers IAD dispatched during the historic 2016 blizzard, only 25 were full-time airport operations employees who knew how to run every piece of equipment. The others-from all walks of life around the airport or outside companies-knew how to run one or maybe two pieces of equipment.

"The plan this year is to have more cross-training," says Settle. Eventually, he would like to have 40 to 50 employees trained on at least three pieces of equipment.

When in a snow mode, IAD operates in six-hour cycles, with half of the crews sleeping while the other half works. The airport converted former construction trailer offices into a sleep center, complete with showers, to improve conditions for workers during weather events. The new rest area can accommodate 110 crewmembers at a time.

The six-hours-on/six-hours-off work cycle suits IAD, because few of its storms extend beyond 24 hours. 

Lesson #2 for Next Time: Buy a SnowCat
Given the airport's previous experiences trying to clear snow from its ILS antennas, Settle has requested funding for a small snowcat. Although the request has cleared the first of the airport's two-part procurement process, if funded, he doesn't expect a snowcat to be available until the 2017-18 snow season.

Settle considers the equipment a good investment, due to its versatility and the inherent restrictions associated with negotiating leases as storms approach.  

Lesson #3 for the Next Time: Obtain Equipment to Clean Runway Lights
With 9,798 runway lighting fixtures and 451 airfield signs to clear, IAD crews spend a lot of time hand-cleaning snow from each unit to prevent damage. During Snowzilla, workers cleaned each light three times over the course of the blizzard. "This is a very tedious process for the electricians," Settle remarks. 

Ideally, he would like to facilitate the work with specialized broom heads such as the ones used at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International. 

"I get jealous whenever I visit their operation, but they battle snow 40 to 50 times a year," reflects Settle. "I tell my crews that just like you 'can't build a church for Easter Sunday,' you equip an airport for a regular snowfall." 



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