A Delicate Dance: Crews Keeping Airport Safe and Running this Winter in Flagstaff

Feb. 6, 2023
A crew of just three people kept the almost 9,000-foot airstrip clear enough for aircraft to safely land, keeping package deliveries, emergency operations and even commercial flights up and running.

Feb. 5—The Flagstaff Pulliam Airport has not closed its runway once this winter, despite the area receiving more than 60 inches of snow in January alone.

A crew of just three people kept the almost 9,000-foot airstrip clear enough for aircraft to safely land, keeping package deliveries, emergency operations and even commercial flights up and running.

"We are very proud that this winter we have not closed the runway once. Not. One. Time. ... There's other snow airports in the country that can't say that about all of their runways," said airport director Barney Helmick.

One of the more remarkable aspects about that achievement is the size of the operations crew that got the job done, and the way they've been balancing the task of snow and ice management with other high-priority duties.

Helmick said, as airports in the region go, it's not uncommon for operations crews to be made up of anywhere from a dozen to 25 people.

Joel Barnett, the Airport Operations and Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) team lead, works with a crew of nine people — when fully staffed.

In each 48-hour shifts for this storm, he had just three people moving snow and two manning a massive neon yellow "crash truck," which is a fire truck designed specifically for putting out fires involving aircraft and their fuels.

Barnett's team is made up of fully qualified firefighters. They are people who have the specialized skills and equipment — crash truck included — needed to respond to a plane crash, handle a medical emergency or put out a fire on airport property.

Barnett's team is also tasked with managing wildlife when anything makes its way onto the airstrip. They're called when a security gate is stuck or a light bulb goes out.

When it snows, Barnett's team is trained to operate the massive pieces of highly specialized snow removal equipment at the airport. His "Ops and ARFF" crew knows how to coordinate with air traffic control to get the job done.

They're the team that drove the runway in carefully calculated circles for hours, in the driving snow, to make sure the runway remained open this January.

Touching down

Airport snow removal doesn't work the same for operations crews as it does for the folks plowing the streets of Flagstaff. The team keeping almost 3 million square feet of pavement clear are held to high and specific standards. The runway doesn't just need to be navigable; it needs to provide good "braking action" or enough traction for a plane to safely steer and come to a stop.

"In the old days, we used to go out there with a truck, go as fast as we could, then slam on the brakes and see how far we slid," Helmick said.

These days, measuring braking action is more sophisticated. The airport uses special equipment to measure the "slickness" of the asphalt on a scale of 0-6. The number on that scale becomes one of the factors commercial airlines use in deciding whether to move forward with flights.

"Airplanes are touching down at 100, 120 miles an hour. So, you can imagine that if the surface wasn't perfectly dry and you didn't have good steering or braking action, it could be a disaster," said Greg Browne, a pilot and tenant at Flagstaff's Pulliam Airport.

To keep the pavement up to muster, the folks pushing, blowing, and clearing snow were driving for twelve to fifteen hours before having their own "break action" and getting some sleep. They did much of this using runway lights as guide posts to make sure the snow was being cleared at the right place and right time.

"If it's really snowing hard at night, I'm going to have to use a Star Wars analogy," said Barnett, who has plowed snow for two decades. "It's like when the Millennium Falcon jumps into hyperspace, and you just see the white lights. It's disorienting. You can't see."

Hyperspeed is an apt description of the pace of this work, too. Barnett's team has just 30 minutes to clear an inch of snow from the runway.

"On the high-speed displacement plows ... you can't necessarily go slow like you could if you were plowing in town, because the slower you go the higher the snow builds up," said Tim Skinner the Airport Operations/ARFF manager. "We have about a 150-foot-wide runway. If [snow] builds up, you have these giant windrows you have to contend with. You have to go at somewhat of a high rate of speed and that adds to the disorientation."

A delicate dance

Both Skinner and Barnett describe the process of clearing the runway as a kind of dance. A dance that involves thousands of tons of steel.

Moving at up to thirty miles per hour, a piece of heavy equipment with a plow as wide as some studio apartments will move up the center line of the runway.

"Typically we have two plows, one of them will start in the middle and make the first pass down the center line, which is also hard to find. You're kind of measuring, looking at the lights on either side, the runway edge lights. You're trying to center yourself down the middle of the runway, and the next plow will be right behind that," Barnett said.

The second plow in this carefully choreographed (if challenging) snow removal dance, will make sure the left side of its blade lines up with where the right side of the first plow's blade stopped. The two vehicles then move in constant circles so that snow is removed without berms or ridges building up in the potential path of a plane.

Planes, and their schedules are a key part of the timing of the snow removal dance.

In cold conditions a kind of anti-freeze, de-icing solution is applied to the wings of aircraft. The process takes roughly 30 minutes. Once it's applied the plane needs to take off in less than a half hour, or the solution will need to be applied again. Pilots are given their window for takeoff by air traffic control, and it's important they make that window. When the plane is ready for takeoff the runway must be ready, too.

"We fly to busy airports. The commercial flights leaving here have to basically ask for a window to fly into these airports," explained Barnett. "We have to work with the pilot, the deicing crews and the tower to try and get the runway cleared, the plane deiced, right around their takeoff window. It's a lot of moving parts."

Sometimes the literal moving parts in snow removal equipment brake. During the storms that started arriving over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the steering knuckle broke on what is essentially a massive snowblower. Barnett's crew has the mechanical savvy for basic repairs, but parts needed to be ordered to get the machine up and running.

"If it breaks down on the runway, we can't leave it there. It's big equipment that's being put to hard work and use over and over and over again," Barnett said. "Things wear out. Things break. We can't just leave the things out there, so we have to use a different piece of equipment and tow it back — at least off the runway in order to keep things going. It's truly a dance."

When equipment breaks, the airport can't simply rent a replacement plow or borrow a city truck. The million-dollar machines in the airport fleet are often bigger and much more specialized.

You may need more than Commercial Driver's License (CDL) to move snow from the airstrip.

"There's more to it than just driving a plow and not hitting somebody's car. There's FAA regulations, there's security protocols," Barnett said.

Operators at the airport have to know where they are on the tarmac, and they have to be trained to talk to air traffic control.

"They're on the same frequency as the airplanes, talking to the control tower. They have to learn, frankly, the thing most student pilots are afraid of, learning to talk on the radio. These guys are learning that same thing, to get clearance to enter the runway and so on, so that there'd be no hazard. They have to know where they are at the airport at all times — which most of us don't know," said Browne, an experienced flight instructor.

"The heavy equipment is fantastic. You've got, eight pieces of million-dollar equipment," Barnett said. "But, all it is, is eight pieces of really heavy steel without knowledgeable people to drive it."

Keeping a full cabin

According to Skinner, staffing ARFF positions is an uphill battle.

The right people for the job have mechanical skills and a willingness to work in operations. They also have to be fully fledged firefighters, and know that at any moment they might be pulled away from one task to respond to another, emergent one.

"It's just hard to find the people who have the interest and the skill set. It's easy to find someone who is willing to do the airport operations side of it, but not willing to go on an emergency medical call, not deal with blood and so on and so forth. It's easy to find somebody who wants to become an entry-level firefighter and do the medical stuff and the emergency response. It's really hard to find somebody who is willing to do both," said Barnett.

Attrition is also a problem.

"The airport operations side, and the snow removal side, it is a very highly specialized discipline in and of itself. They have to be a jack-of-all-trades, their heads on a swivel so to speak. Then you start adding all these other components to it — which might be where we are at necessity-wise — it gets unsustainable and very touch and go," Skinner said.

The challenge of recruiting qualified candidates for any job across the city remains the same for the airport. Just as Flagstaff Fire Department is looking to add men and women to their ranks, so is the sheriff's office, the police force, and the list goes on.

"We're not complaining alone," Helmick said. "We have trouble hiring. Part of that is salary-based. Part of it is we just have a limited pool to draw from and we have limited money to spend. We're in a budget cycle right now in the city. We've got demands from every division."

Skinner said the airport has thought about breaking down tasks in the future, perhaps maintaining a crew dedicated only to the fire-rescue side of the job. For now, the blended role remains in-tact.

It's not a job for everyone, but it's a job Barnett has stuck with. He's said there's a few reasons why.

Some days he drives the firefighting crash truck to repair a security gate, moments after dealing with a bear or flock of birds on the runway. He might be moved from plowing snow to a medical emergency on a commercial flight at any moment. You never know what you're going to get, and that keeps the job exciting, said Barnett.

He said he'd worked behind a desk before and the 9-to-5 cubicle life was not for him.

Connecting flights and people

There is one reason, above the others, why Barnett has stayed for more than 20 years.

"It's the relationships. I've met a lot of great people working here. Not just people living in Flagstaff, but people flying in and out of Flagstaff. I now have friends that live in Switzerland because they flew through our airport. I helped them with something and kept in contact over the years. I think a big part of it is that, just the relationship side and the fact that it is something new every day," Barnett said.

Browne has a working relationship with Barnett and the operation crew. He keeps his small Cessna aircraft at the Flagstaff Airport. When he describes the work of Ops and ARFF, it is with both wonder and gratitude.

"Staffing might be just as tight in a big city, but you don't have these relationships. I think we all feel like we're neighbors. You feel like you're among friends," Browne said.

When the last major storm hit Flagstaff on a Saturday night, Browne and his wife had flown to New Mexico to visit their son. They returned to town that Wednesday, and were able to land safely. However the couple was nervous about leaving their small private aircraft on a cleared ramp, but couldn't shovel enough snow to put the plane in its spot at the hanger. Browne put in a call to Barnett's crew.

"You know, 15-20 minutes later, he makes it over. They got the snow over so we could put our plane in there, and then two days later my wife had a medical appointment in the Valley to which we were flying down. It was near the Scottsdale airport. He came out and did it again," the pilot said.

Browne, as a pilot and tenant has seen the ARFF crew in action, but he's one of the few.

According to Burnett, when his work is invisible to the public that's the mark of a job well done.

In the dance that keeps the airport running, Burnett's crew can't trip. If they do runway conditions might not be safe and accidents can happen. Burnett's crew can't get off-beat, can't lose their sense of timing. If they do flights will be canceled, package deliveries delayed. Instead, Burnett's crew must dance on, each step landing in the right place, as they keep the whirr of landing aircraft humming like a song over Pulliam Drive.

Sierra Ferguson can be reached at sierra.ferguson@lee.net.


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