Safe Landings Depend On Extensive Snow Removal At Aspen Airport

Dec 30, 2014

Workers stand by an Oshkosh broom truck on a frosty morning. It's one of several big machines that clear snow from the runway at the Aspen Pitkin County Airport.
Credit Marci Krivonen

The Aspen Airport is in the middle of one of its busiest and snowiest stretches. A fleet of huge snow blowers and plow trucks clear snow from the runway long before the sun comes up. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen discovered, it’s a job that requires attention to detail and patience.

The temperatures are in the single digits as light snow falls onto the runway at the Aspen Pitkin County Airport. A fleet of large trucks zip back and forth, clearing snow and leaving a cloud of it behind.

Dustin Havel is Assistant Aviation Director of Operations and Facilities. He doubles as a truck driver when a snowstorm hits. Today he’s behind the wheel of a high speed runway broom.

"This Oshkosh broom has a 20-foot broom on the front that has steel bristles and it spins at high RPMs to cut through the compacted or dry snow," he says.

The broom cleans up residual snow left by the plows, so airplanes can land on bare pavement.

"The brooms stay out the majority of the day when it’s snowing so we can continue to sweep up the snow that’s fallen. We continue to go back to the center of the runway and work back out to the edges."

On a snowy day, this fleet of massive machines start work around 3 o’clock in the morning. Snow plows, brooms, snow blowers and loaders work to make the runway safe.

"So, basically, this machine is one of our newer blowers here at Aspen Pitkin County Airport," says David Cerise, as he moves his snow blower over piles of snow more than four feet high. He's a seasonal snow removal operator.

Krivonen: "So this is a super powerful snowblower?"

Cerise: "It is. It’s a real large one. It has two diesel Cat engines. One drives the blower and one drives the machine."

The snow is blown off the runway and taxiways onto a nearby area that’s not used by planes. In especially snowy years, the snow piles are sometimes sculpted so the wings of airplanes don’t touch them on takeoff.

The goal of clearing the snow is to make the runway safe for the commercial and private jets that take off and land. Once the machines have removed snow, a special truck does a “friction test.” It emulates the kind of braking action a plane might have on landing. 

The airport uses a special truck to test friction on the runway during a snow storm. A small wheel drops down from the bed of a truck and a computer comes up with a number. It's indicative of how the braking action might be for an airplane.
Credit Marci Krivonen

"Aircraft touch down at a substantially higher miles per hour than a normal car drives on the highway," says Dustin Havel.  "So, there’s a lot of sensitivity in braking, so we want to make sure we have the surface as good as we can for airplanes to land and touch down."

Havel says the airport’s lucky to have this equipment. Many other airports operate with older machines that break down. The winter operations at the Aspen airport cost about one million dollars a year.

"Our airport, from the County’s point of view and from my point of view, is one of the county’s most important economic assets," says George Newman.

He's a Pitkin County Commissioner. He helps approve annual budgets for the airport. He says keeping the snow cleared and the runway safe is an important priority.

"We think it’s critical. If you just look at this past holiday period where we’ve had so much snow and so many flights were canceled on and off.  Anything we can do to ensure that we’re able to keep our runways, taxiways and aprons clear as quick as possible, we want to do that."

Back on the runway, the snow is picking up so the broom continues to move up and down the runway, clearing it.

"It gets kind of repetitive, basically driving around in circles," says Havel. "It’s basically just a race track for the brooms to keep the runway open and looking good."

It’s an important job given how busy it is. This time of year typically sees more than 4300 passengers move through the airport each day.