As the forecast threatens the season’s first snowfall this weekend, a fleet of yellow trucks at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport is ready to rumble across runways and clear them down to tire skid marks on the “touchdown zones.”
The equipment – seven 16-foot wide snow sweepers; six high speed, aerodynamic runway plows; four snowblower trucks and four sand spreaders – took on 130 inches of snow last season, spreading 2,520 tons of hot sand to keep the runways open to planes for all but a few hours.
When they’re all at work clearing some of 14 million square feet of runways, taxiways, sidewalks and parking lots, it’s like art in motion.
“It’s really an amazing thing to watch,” said William Vanecek, director of airport aviation. “I look at it almost like ballet.”
Airport officials are proud of the crew’s track record, including six awards for airport snow and ice control. That is one of the reasons they invited the media Thursday to the warehouse-like garage Thursday on Cayuga Road in Cheektowaga, to show off their hardware.
Trucks, a new metal piece fashioned by a staff machinist to keep ice from building up on the broom trucks and a new liquid tank truck that holds 4,000 gallons of potassium acetate were on display.
Wing-like “booms,” with a 50-foot span, can spread the de-icer on the airfield that sometimes seems like tundra. Some days it even gets so cold and dry, snow vaporizes.
“It occurs often at the arctic circle and at this airport,” said Joseph Guarino, airfield superintendent, who remembers that snow had to be cleared every day for three months last winter. “No snowstorm is like the last.”
After getting frustrated by broom truck breakdowns last winter, mechanic and welder John Kwasniewski designed a special metal fitting to protect hydraulic lines that got coated with ice and broke under pressure during some plowing jobs.
“We needed to do something,” he said. “I love fabricating parts ... It breaks up the day to do something different.”
When the winter schedule starts next month, the staff of 30 will rotate in round-the-clock shifts so workers can handle whatever develops.
“We’re constantly out there,” said Frank Badaszewski, one of the airport’s 20 drivers. “They call it a trip to Albany because you’re up and down the airway all night … They never want to close the runway.”
He climbed into one of his favorite trucks for a drive to a landing zone on one of the four runways. It was a “roll over” plow with a blade that can lift and push snow from the drivers’ or passengers’ side.
Inside, it was a cockpit. The driver’s seat is about eight feet off the ground. A radio broadcasts voices from air traffic control from above a dashboard full of buttons and levers.
“It’s all about friction,” he said. “We try to keep the area as pristine as possible.... When it’s snowing, we’re pretty busy. It gets pretty hectic.”
As he drove, he pointed out landmarks like the orange and white radar tower that picks up plane signals and the part of the airport used by FedEx and UPS delivery planes.
“We keep that open for you so you get all your presents,” he said.
For a long time he wanted to be a firefighter and this job comes pretty close.
“This, to me, is like a first responder …. There are a lot of lives in your hands,” he said. “That’s our main focus: Keep that runway clean and safe and open.”