Bwi Makes Sure Snow Isn't Only Thing To Land Safely

December 30, 1990|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

It was 7 p.m. Thursday when Jay Huber made the decision that would delay hundreds of passengers and anger airline officials at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

With 2 inches of snow blanketing the runways and a peak time approaching for the airport's major carrier, Huber decided to shut down at 8 p.m. and give work crews a chance to move their caravan of snowplows.

USAir officials pleaded with Huber, manager of airport operations, to delay the closing until 9:30 p.m., when the last of its 20 planes trying to take off between 8 and 9 p.m. would be in the air.

Huber gave them an extra 10 minutes to land some of the nine planes circling overhead, but declined to push back the closure.

"I can't guarantee it, but I'll do my damndest," he told one USAir official on the phone. "I'm afraid if we wait any longer, we will lose our battle with the snow, and then we won't be able to hold the snow removal down to one hour."

But with snowplows poised at the edge of one of the runways, planes continued to take off and land. At 8:10 p.m., an Eastern jet started to taxi out to a runway and a Mexicana Airlines plane started to follow.

The Eastern plane made it out, but the Mexicana pilot decided to return to the gate. USAir managed to land all nine of its planes.

Failure to land those planes, said Susan Young, press manager for USAir, would have meant canceling the 20 flights trying to take off. The flights were delayed, but eventually made it out.

"We try to work with the airport," she said. "Obviously safety is a primary factor. It was 15 minutes one way or another. We felt that was a reasonable time frame."

"We want to accommodate them," said BWI spokesman Linda Greene. "But we've decided it's best to close everything at once and clear it because it's faster."

Finally, just before 8:30 -- with close to 3 inches of snow piled up -- 20 plows began moving out to clear the two runways of nearly 3.3 million square feet of snow.

It was one of the most hectic times of the night for the men in the airport operations office, where they directed work crews on the airfield and in parking lots, answered phone calls from relatives wondering when their loved ones would arrive and from a state legislator who was having problems finding a parking space, while at the same time trying to coordinate gate assignments for airlines.

From mid-afternoon Thursday until well into Friday morning, after nearly 6 inches of snow had fallen and the freezing rain had begun, the managers sat poised at an array of computer monitors, phones and weather maps.

"It's amazing all the work that we do and by noon tomorrow it's (the snow) all going to be gone," said Robert Kizmann, one of the operations managers.

Kizmann was almost correct. The 5-plus inches of snow at the airport turned to slush by Friday afternoon as temperatures hit 45 degrees. Weekend temperatures were expected to peak between 55 and 65 degrees.

But the temperature Thursday hovered around 26 degrees. Visibility was about a half-mile and airport officials declared snow emergency at 4 p.m., 30 minutes after the first flakes started to fall.

The emergency was declared just after a meeting among officials from the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air traffic controllers.

There a plan is developed for clearing the airport of snow, which includes parking lots, sidewalks, jet ways in front of terminals and taxiways leading out to runways.

At 5 p.m., Huber closed the general aviation runway, which couldn't be used anyway because it doesn't have an instrument landing system, needed when visibility is below three miles.

Later in the evening, snow clearing crews would use that runway to practice for their first real test of the winter season.

At that time, Huber planned to close the airport between 6 and 7 p.m., a "window" when few planes use the airport. But there wasn't enough snow to plow.

The snow was dry, meaning planes could safely land and take off with between 2 and 3 inches on the ground. With wetter, heavier snow, runways must be cleared when half an inch accumulates.

The operations managers continually watch computer monitors showing ground temperatures at various spots on each runway, as well as wind conditions and other weather facts. Television screens show parts of the airport they can't see from their office.

Huber said crews will drive cars with monitors on board up and down runways, conducting friction tests to measure how fast planes can stop. A reading of "poor" or "nil" could shut a runway down.

Airline pilots also can report conditions to airport managers. Huber said if one pilot expresses concerns about a runway being unsafe, it will be closed.

By 6:30 p.m., Huber said a "significant change" had occurred in the weather, and he started talking about closing the airport. Some airlines already were reporting delays, mostly those flights going to cities west of Baltimore, where the storm originated.

The plows finally started to roll at 8:30 p.m. It takes about an hour for the procession of 20 plows to clear the two major runways, which are each about 9,500 feet long.

Gary Hicks, the maintenance supervisor, said the airport used to clear runways between take-offs and landings, but he found it was easier just to shut everything down.

The procession consists of five plows with 19-foot spans, five trucks armed with giant brooms, five trucks with small plows designed to clear up snow that was missed and five trucks with blowers to clear away the excess.

The airport reopened at 9:45 p.m., and closed again between 2:10 and 3:55 a.m., when there was no air traffic. By Friday morning, the airport was back to normal operations.

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