"I'd never say it could never happen here," Jim Nilo, the airport's fire chief and operations manager, said yesterday. "Our job is to do the best we can" to prepare.
The airport has a major advantage over Midway, where a Southwest Airlines plane landing in a snowstorm plowed through a fence and into a street. A 6-year-old boy died when his family's car was crushed, and 10 people were injured.
Richmond has buffer zones that exceed 1,000 feet at the ends of its runways, which the Chicago airport lacks.
"Ice is the thing we worry about the most," Nilo said. "Richmond is a very difficult area to predict weather. We're almost always on the break line" between ice and snow.
Nilo leads a team that spends months prepping for winter weather, which typically costs about $ 250,000 for extra supplies and labor. The preparations include:
--Mobilizing snow teams of 20 employees from the airport's six maintenance departments to clear runways, jet ramps, taxi areas and roadways. The teams work 12-hour shifts and are augmented by up to 10 more airport workers assigned to clean sidewalks and parking lots.
--Maintaining two huge snowplows with 22-foot-wide blades (about double the size of a typical highway-department snowplow, Nilo said). The airport also has two huge snowblowers with 6-foot-tall rotary "ribbons," or what Nilo calls " your home snowblower on steroids." A 20-foot-wide broom attachment fits on each blower.
--Keeping 20,000 gallons of a special chemical for preventing snow or ice formation on the runway.
--A huge stock of fine sand -- known as "FAA sand" -- that meets the standards of the Federal Aviation Administration to avoid damaging aircraft.
Winter weather requires "a tremendous team effort" with his crews working in sync with the airlines, the FAA and others to keep the runways and roads clear. They also provide timely information to the airlines, which can choose not to land here.
The airport is equipped with a top-notch navigational system that helps pilots land during low visibility.
"Every time an airplane lands, the pilot gives a 'braking action report' to the FAA control tower," Nilo said. This alerts other pilots about how the brakes performed on the landing.
As an added precaution during snow or ice storms, the airport's ground crew regularly checks runway surfaces by driving on them and making sudden stops. A special device measures the G-force of the braked vehicle -- another piece of data for pilots.
The runways have special sensors that track the temperature and any snow or ice formation.
"With the equipment we have, it takes about two hours to do a full-blown cleaning operation," Nilo said.
Typically, his crews can keep one runway open, then shut another for cleaning. By alternating through a storm, the airport can stay open for business.
"Our goal is never to shut the airport down," he said.
There's no official record of the last time the airport closed because of winter precipitation, but unofficially, it hasn't happened in at least six years, spokesman Troy Bell said.
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Some pilots and air-traffic controllers were concerned about the worsening snowstorm and discussed whether they could change the runway configuration to escape a tailwind.
Thousands more feet of runway could be required, something that Midway and others do not have.
A snowstorm like the one that sent a Southwest Airlines jet skidding off the runway in December could effectively shut down Midway Airport under new federal rules.