BWI to winter: We're ready, bring it on

Airport shows off preparations if snowstorms repeat

  • A fleet of snow removal vehicles and equipment line up on the tarmac at BWI airport. BWI officials held a demonstration on Thursday to talk about snow removal plans for the upcoming winter.
A fleet of snow removal vehicles and equipment line up on the… (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR,…)
November 18, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The "conga line" of snow-removal vehicles slowly formed a procession at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Thursday — 22 pieces of equipment that included humongous snowplows, funny-looking blower trucks with oversize fans and ordinary pickups.

Slowly they rolled across runways in a BWI version of the old Soviet May Day parades in Moscow — flexing the airport's anti-snow weaponry as if trying to scare off the alien forces of winter.

It was the annual "snow parade" at BWI, and the prevailing message was that airport employees are ready for anything the season can throw at them — even an unlikely repetition of last winter's one-two-three punch.

"We're preparing for exactly what we had last year," said BWI Executive Director Paul J. Wiedefeld, who led the airport's employees through last year's Triple Crown of snow.

Including one snowstorm in December and two within a week of each other in February, BWI received 77 inches of snow last season — leaving it with 22 million square feet to be cleared.

"The first one was easy, the second one was fun, the third one was 'enough is enough,' " the airport chief said. He said last winter's snow-removal efforts cost BWI about $15 million — compared with about $4 million in a typical year.

Wiedefeld and other officials invited local media to normally restricted areas of the airport to witness BWI's preparations for the winter and to inspect the arsenal of gadgetry employed to keep the runways clear, including a simulator used to teach airport employees how to plow in driving snow and the 70-foot-long plowing and sweeping monster known as Vammas.

Through the year, Wiedefeld said, BWI's skilled tradesmen — electricians, carpenters, locksmiths and others — take time off from their regular jobs to train for snow-removal duty. He said they take a lot of pride in their snow-removal work, adding that the snow parade is the unofficial kickoff of the winter season and an important event for employee morale.

The job of clearing parking lots can be left to contractors, but it is BWI's own work force that has the training and security clearances to do the intricate work of removing snow from the runways and taxiways in a way that allows jets to land and take off safely.

To train for that task, BWI employees learn the airport's layout and the feel of the heavy snow-removal equipment in a simulator installed at its maintenance building off Aviation Boulevard. In the simulator, workers can get the feel of various pieces of equipment as they perform their snow-removal tasks on a digital projection of BWI's layout.

"Every light, every sign, every marking in BWI has been filmed and digitized into this simulator," said Wayne Pennell, deputy executive director for maintenance and operations.

With the flick of a switch, the simulator can shift from daylight to nighttime conditions and can be adjusted to replicate anything from bright sunshine to a driving snow. From the passenger seat, the ride seems impressively realistic, complete with the sensation of snowflakes slamming into the windshield and the truck rumbling as it lowers a plow or runs onto the grass.

Mike Feurer, project assistant at the Maryland Aviation Administration, said the simulator helps acclimate equipment operators to the dramatic differences between night and day on the airfield.

"It looks entirely different at nighttime. When you go out to the horizon, you lose all your visual cues," he said.

Three of the vehicles whose operations were being simulated Thursday were on display. Known as Vammas machines, the 70-foot-behemoths carry a 26-foot-wide plow blade — wider than two highway lanes — followed by a 22-foot mechanical broom.

"It's amazing. It looks like a praying mantis or something," Wiedefeld said.

The massive machines operate in what airport officials actually do call a "conga line" — with snow-blowing trucks, chemical spreaders and other vehicles each playing a specialized role to keep the surface clear.

Pennell said the airport has all the equipment it needs to keep runways clear. "We borrowed zero equipment last year," he said. "We're fairly self-sustaining on the airport itself."

Wiedefeld said the airport's staff scrambles into position if there's even a hint of snow or ice in the forecast.

"If it passes us, great, but the reality is we have to be ready to roll," he said. "In this business, you have to stay ahead of it, because if you lose it, you lose it."

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