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Vigilant crew keeps brushing away snow at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Sean Phillips, with the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, removes snow from his vehicle at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe on December 10, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Sean Phillips, with the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, clears snow from a runway at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe on December 10, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Sean Phillips, with the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, clears snow from a runway at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe on December 10, 2013.

A huge cloud of snow is pushed aside as Sean Phillips cruises the runway of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity inside the comfortable cab of an $800,000 snow plow and brush machine.

“I just sit in the driver's seat and steer. It does everything else,” he joked, referring to the huge plow in the front for heavier snow and the wide, yellow brush in the back to sweep lighter dustings.

Last year at the airport, crews cleared about 51 inches of snow, using $5 million of equipment including the large plow Phillips was driving recently to clear two inches of accumulation.

“As soon as it starts snowing, we stay in operation until it stops snowing,” said Gabe Monzo, executive director of the authority. “Airplanes keep landing throughout the day, and you don't want any snow to build up.”

The six maintenance crew workers closely monitor the ground temperature and the runway surface in a smaller pickup truck outfitted with a plow, sometimes clearing snow dropped by the bigger machines.

Monzo said the crews work with Spirit Airlines operations to dictate whether or not flights are delayed or canceled, working as quickly as possible to clear the more than 800,000-square-foot runway, equivalent to a mile and a half of four-lane highway.

Since the airline service began in 2011, snow removal has been even more critical to smooth operations, especially this year with the addition of 250 parking spaces in June.

“It's a little bit more intense.You have to be on your toes all the time,” he said. “Not only with the runways and the taxiways, but with the sidewalks and the parking lots.”

Depending on the depth of the snow, it takes only about 20 minutes to clear the entire runway, Monzo said.

Instead of salt that can corrode planes, workers use potassium acetate to melt ice that accumulates on the runway.

Monzo said he learned about the chemical at the International Aviation Snow Symposium in Buffalo, N.Y.

This is the third year the airport has used the compound. It can melt ice in about 10 minutes, compared to urea, a solid nitrogen-containing compound previously used by the airport, which took about 25 minutes to melt ice, Monzo said.

Last year, the authority used 100 tons of sand and 124 gallons of potassium acetate, he said.

“You're always trying to make sure (pilots) have a nice black runway to land on,” Monzo said.

The runway is grooved to channel water away from where planes land.

Phillips of Humphreys has worked at the airport for 13 years and in that time the equipment has made it easier for workers to battle snow storms.

“It's a game against Mother Nature. Sometimes you play a little bit behind, but once it stops snowing, we always win,” he said.

Brushes like the one on the machine Phillips drives also help clear snow from accumulating on runway lights, which can be damaged by snow plows over time, Monzo said.

The brushes cost between $6,000 and $7,000 to replace each year.

Other repairs to the machines are done by the maintenance crew and everything has to match the large plows' super size, Phillips said.

The crew works as best they can to fix machinery quickly and talk with the traffic control tower avoid flight delays, he said.

“There's nothing worse than knowing what you want to do during a really bad storm, then knowing you can't do it with the equipment you want to do it with,” Phillips said.

Monzo and Phillips both agreed that key to avoiding those delays for passengers and pilots is a team that works together well to ensure the safety of everyone in the air.

“It's all a game. The more puzzle pieces you can have, the better,” Phillips said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or

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