More than 150 sleepy-eyed souls --- flight attendants, pilots and safety workers --- strolled side by side down a 9,000-foot-long runway at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport just after sunrise Wednesday. They were staring intently at the grooved concrete beneath their feet.
The walkers rolled out of bed to make a very big point about very small objects, the kind that get sucked into jet engines and can damage tires and sometimes have catastrophic consequences.
"I haven't found anything yet, and that's the way you want it," said AirTran pilot Richard Wilson, about halfway through the 6th annual Foreign Object Debris, or FOD, Walk. "Anything going through an engine on takeoff is a very bad thing."
A former U.S. Air Force pilot, Wilson said memories of the Air France Concorde crash seven years ago that killed 113 passengers inspired him to take part in Wednesday's walk.
A Concorde en route to New York City crashed into a hotel shortly after takeoff near Paris after it hit a piece of metal on the runway. The metal caused a tire to blow out, which ruptured a fuel tank in the wing.
Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport with 85 million passengers last year, conducts daily FOD inspections of its five runways and immediately removes any foreign objects, said Neil Deevy, Hartsfield-Jackson's senior operations manager.
Deevy --- some co-workers call him the FODfather --- said inspections turn up everything from broken screws and bolts to luggage handles. Wednesday's walk turned up the usual suspects and one Deevy could not identify --- an inch-square piece of what appeared to be ceramic material, complete with tire marks.
"This will go to the lab," he said. "If we see something we can't identify, we send it off to be tested."
FOD is a serious and expensive concern for airports and the airline industry, Deevy said. Some estimates put the worldwide damage caused by runway debris at $4 billion a year in shattered airplane engines, blown tires and damaged landing gear, wings and plane bodies.
Wednesday's walk turned up only small debris on the runway itself, which was closed briefly for the FOD Walk. Sarah Berry, who works in the airport's marketing department, gleefully displayed a broken screw she found.
"I think it's the big find so far," she said.
The cargo ramp next to the runway was a different story. More vehicles use the ramp, so it usually gives up more FOD, airport officials said. The "Fodpickers" found ball bearings, bolts, strapping and even a homemade 5-inch box cutter with tape for a handle.
Robert Lampkin, 32, who works for AirTran as a ramp agent, showed off the rusty prize to his fellow walkers.
"This could really hurt somebody," he said.
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