Yellowknife Airport Switches to Chemical-Free Rubber Removal

Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

Repairing and maintaining runways without disrupting flight operations is a universal goal for airport operators. This summer, Yellowknife Airport (YZF), in Canada's Northwest Territories, managed to strip the rubber residue from its main runway and secondary runway in two days-without causing any interruptions to service or using harsh chemicals.

Randy Straker, the airport's manager of Operations and Maintenance, highlights two key factors for the $23,000 project: hiring the right contractor with specialized equipment, and careful coordination between the work crews and control tower. 

Every two years, the airport undergoes friction testing to help ensure that it is providing proper braking conditions for aircraft. Last fall, Tradewinds Scientific found that YZF's main runway (16-34) was showing significant rubber buildup and lower friction readings. "We knew we had to do something to fix that," Straker says.

Project: Rubber Removal 
Location: Yellowknife (NT) Airport
Scope: 2 runways (7,500-foot main runway; 5,000-foot secondary runway) 
Cost: $23,000 
Project Duration: 2 days
Completed: Late July 2017
Friction Testing: Tradewinds Scientific
Contractor: Knelsen Sand & Gravel 
Truck Manufacturer: Blasters 
Chassis Manufacture: Stahl Peterbilt
Key Benefits: Chemical-free process; main & secondary runways remained open throughout the project 

Previously, the airport had an unsatisfactory experience with a company that used a chemical treatment. This time, it stressed two contract requirements: The project had to be done quickly and in an environmentally friendly manner.

As Straker was considering options for this year's rubber removal, Knelsen Sand & Gravel, from northern Alberta, approached him about the runway job. Knelsen is known for services such as road construction as well as concrete and aggregate production, but it is relatively new to airfield work. The company had recently purchased a truck specifically designed for runway jobs, and one of the senior managers thought it would work well for YZF. Straker had experienced positive results working with another Knelsen executive on other projects and decided to give the company a chance. 

"We liked the fact that Knelsen's truck would be using high-pressure water instead of chemicals," he explains. "Better yet, they promised us they could remove rubber from both our main runway and our secondary runway (10-28) in only two days."

Turn time was a particularly important criterion for Straker. "We are a fairly busy airport, with 578,000 passengers in 2016, and 55,000 operations. That figure will likely rise in 2017," he explains. "Tourism is a big driver of the economy for the whole territory. The Japanese market has been big for us for many years, and the China market has shown tremendous growth. Keeping the airport open is very important to the economy of the whole region."

Total cost for the project was approximately $23,000. "Since the chemical operation two years ago cost us $15,000, we thought that was very reasonable," Straker relates. The airport paid for the rubber removal from its annual Operations and Maintenance budget, so no political battles had to be waged for funding.  

Custom Schedule & Equipment

The project occurred in late July, with both runways remaining open throughout the process. "Work was done mostly during quiet times throughout the day," Straker explains. "Our airport staff would communicate between the tower and the Knelsen work truck if a plane was approaching or taking off. The truck would then simply move off the runway, let the plane land or depart, and go back to work.

"We did the whole project in only two days," he reports. "Most of the work was done between 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. In all, I think it took only 22 hours."

The truck Knelsen used for the job was manufactured by Blasters, a company from Tampa, FL. Working with a local Peterbilt dealer, Blasters maximized the vehicle's run time, within allowable weights and lengths. The vehicle used at YZF was the first tri-drive unit the company manufactured. 

"When we first started talking to Randy Straker at YZF, he emphasized to us that he needed an environmentally safe truck that could do the work quickly, without disrupting planes landing and taking off," explains Kelly Hines, general manager of Knelsen's concrete division. "The L4012VTK Liquidator was the best vehicle to use to meet these requirements."

Knelsen's special vehicle includes a truck-mounted water blaster and vacuum recovery system that removes rubber deposits and pavement markings. The cleaning head assemblies can be mounted to the front of a truck for use by a single operator, or to a Kubota tractor, which requires dual operators to perform the job.

The system uses ultra-high-pressure water up to 40,000 psi, with flow rates up to 12 gallons per minute to clean the pavement with minimal damage to the substrate, explains Hines. Rubber residue, markings and other pavement debris is simultaneously vacuumed up into a hopper/tank. A "like new" surface profile is created when rubber is removed, which once again increases the friction values to meet or exceed the industry standards, he adds. 

"One impressive feature of this vehicle is its robotic arm, which moves back and forth sweeping up debris," Hines says. "It has a cleaning path up to 20 inches. A handheld remote supplies infinite head positions, and the simple design allows for quick change of spray bar and shroud configurations. It also has a 24-inch reach outside of the truck bumper either side."

For the job at YZF, Knelsen used a three-man crew. "The truck can cover a 20-inch width at a time, so for Yellowknife's 7,500-foot runway, it did not take that long," Hines continues. "In our two-day time frame, we also were able to clean up the secondary runway and remove ghost paint lines from the apron."

Hines is optimistic about performing similar work for other airports. In recent months, Knelsen has used its custom vehicle at Vancouver International and Calgary International, and has projects for several other airports on the horizon. "We hope to expand our airport business in the coming months," Hines says. "We like working with airports. They are high-end clients, with highly skilled people. We anticipate this will be a nice, steady business for us."

YZF is an advocate for the maintenance method and contractor. "There was instant gratification for this project," Straker reflects. "You could tell the difference immediately once the work was done in late summer. In the last few weeks, pilots have given us a lot of positive feedback." 

Ready for More

Keeping the main runway clean and maintaining good friction test results will be especially important as the airport anticipates continued growth. In addition to its current passenger and cargo service by carriers such as Air Canada Jazz, WestJet, Air Tindi and Buffalo Airways, Straker reports an increase in military and other traffic. 

"Several U.S. Air Force planes have landed here in the last few months," he notes. "In addition, both American and Delta airlines have done site visits."

The big-name commercial carriers currently use polar routes, with YZF as a designated alternate airport. As such, Straker's crews have accommodated 777s and 747s for them in the past. 

The airport also serves a steady stream of flights associated with two of the largest diamond mines in North America. The mining companies, which are located about 180 miles northeast of the airport, use specially configured 737s and Hercules C-140s to transport supplies and employees between YZF and their own gravel runway. 

Whatever their individual missions, aircraft operators landing and taking off from YZF are bound to appreciate the airport's recently cleaned runways. 


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