WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – Despite intense wind-driven snow that has littered the tarmac at T.F. Green Airport with snowdrifts, the first flight since the blizzard began was scheduled to touch down at 9:40 p.m. Tuesday, even before the storm is entirely over.
At any given moment during a storm there are 40 workers and 35 trucks working to clear the runway at T.F. Green, according to Airport Operations Specialist Jeff Wiggin. He oversees the removal of snow from 2.7 million square feet of pavement at the airport.
“The challenges of this storm are the high rate of snowfall and the limited visibility which has made it tough on all the crews to keep operating,” Wiggin said. “We’ve been operating non-stop since the first snowfall.”
Unlike clearing roads and highways, the airport has to adhere to strict federal standards before they can deem the airport open and safe for aircraft.
Wiggin said they use a specialized $150,000 truck called a “friction tester” that drives down the runway at a constant 40 mph, and then a wheel attached to sensitive computer equipment is lowered from its chassis to test the grip of the tarmac.
As one of the staffers that signs his name to a report deeming the runway safe and open, Wiggin said he feels the weight of the responsibility.
“[We] all take it very seriously,” he said. “There is no joking around in this game.”
The airport can’t use salt – like that used on highways – and must make sure each light and sign on the runway is clearly visible. Snow drifts surrounding the gates must be trucked away so that a jet’s wing doesn’t accidentally clip them.
Wiggin gave a reporter a tour of the tarmac while the blizzard was still moving through Rhode Island. The pavement was a virtual moonscape; massive snow removal equipment – ominously called “steel rollover plows” and “snow brooms” boasting a 22-foot wingspan – emerged from the whiteout conditions with little warning.
The most impressive truck is a called a snow blower, the much larger sibling of the push version people use to clear their driveways. Its six-foot-high blades churned the snow into its belly and shot it more than one hundred feet in the air. The airport has five of them.
“The operators are well trained and everybody knows their job,” Wiggin said. “They come to work to get this place open.”
A jet from FedEx and a National Guard C-130 were the sole aircraft left out in the elements. Pointing to the military aircraft, Wiggin said: “They couldn’t get out in time.”
His truck bounced to Runway Five – one of the main strips for take-offs and landings – and it was surprisingly clear of snow; the black pavement was visible under bands of drifting snow. Wiggin said the runway is an intense area of focus for the crew.
“They’re passing on this every 20 minutes, 30 minutes,” Wiggin said. “Around the clock.”
The first scheduled flight was supposed to arrive Wednesday morning, but late in the day Wiggin got word there was one set to come in at 9:41 p.m. the night before.