Maintenance crews keep planes flying

Photo: During the Turn Up! event at Frontiers of Flight, the men and women behind the scenes were recognized for their part in maintaining Dallas Love Field and its runways. /Courtesy Photo

This is where the rubber hits the runway – and where it gets cleaned off.

A lot happens behind the scenes in the maintenance division of Dallas Love Field Airport, a transportation hub that serves about seven million people a year. Crews work around the clock to ensure the runway areas are kept clean and safe. They also assist with painting, landscaping and security.

Another important task is cleaning off skid marks left behind by airplanes as they land and barrel down the runways.

“When the airplane tires hit the concrete, they leave a little bit of rubber,” said Gentry (Shane) Gravens, manager of airfield maintenance. “Over a period of time, it builds up, and that makes it harder and harder for the airplanes to stop. So we have to go and remove it.”

Maintenance crews use special equipment to measure friction and remove rubber build-up. Too much rubber on a runway can create a slick landing surface.

“Equipment readings tell us if we need to remove rubber and what the condition of the concrete is,” Gravens said. “We tell the tower, the tower in turn tells the airplane, and the airplane knows how fast it has to come in.”

Gravens’ comments came during a tour of the maintenance area as part of the Turn Up! event through the Frontiers of Flight Museum and Dallas City of Learning on Saturday, Aug. 1.

The event featured terminal tours, arts and crafts, the Airport Rescue Fire-Fighter Truck (ARFF), a police K-9 demonstration, as well as a living history performance representing important people in aviation history, among. In addition, registration was held for Dallas City of Learning, a program that helps young people explore hobbies and potential careers.

An estimated 1,200 people attended the event, according to Jose L. Torres, a spokesman for Dallas Love Field.

Rubber from aircraft tires is not the only potential runway problem, especially during the winter months. Although the harshest winter weather is likely several months away, equipment is already being tested and prepared.

Winters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area can be brief yet brutal. As a result, the maintenance staff has gone as far as seeking advice from experts in Buffalo, NY, one of the snow capitals of the nation.

“While they deal with a lot of snow, we deal with ice,” Gravens said. “You can’t land on ice.”

When snow and ice hit, special maintenance equipment distributes chemicals to dissolve snow, sleet and ice on the runways. One trip up and down a runway uses about 2,100 gallons of chemical, which costs about $10 a gallon.

Snowplow equipment is used to clear snow or slush from the runways.

“We go 40 to 50 miles-an-hour down a runway,” Gravens said. “Our main goal is to maintain at least 50 feet on each side of the center line down the runway. That’s where the wheels land. But we try to go at least to the hedge line, which is 200 feet.”

Runways must be kept open for safety and financial reasons. The airport can lose up to one-million-dollars a minute if runway operation is lost and various fees are not collected. Airport crews are also responsible for maintaining an executive airport in south Dallas and a downtown helipad at the convention center.

Maintenance crews will have even more ground to cover with a new parking lot at the airport. All of that concrete must be cleaned and maintained as well.

The Dallas City Council approved the 4,000-plus space parking garage, because an increase in flights has caused parking shortages, Torres said in a written statement.

“During peak times, parking becomes an issue,” Torres said.

The parking garage is expected to be completed in 2017.

Summer months present another set of challenges. Maintenance crews can spend up to 17 hours a day mowing grassy areas at the airport. Most of the mowing takes place in the evening hours.

“From midnight to 6 a.m. we’re kind of at a standstill,” said Gravens. “If you mow during the day the bugs get active and then the birds fly in. We also can’t have trees around with fruits or berries. That will attract birds.”

Scorching temperatures this summer have made it difficult on crews. When the mercury hits more than 100 degrees, temperatures soar on and near the runways.

“It was [recently] 143 degrees on the concrete and 121 degrees in the shade,” Gravens said.

During the extreme temperatures, he had crews focus on working on equipment inside the garage, drinking plenty of water, and limiting direct sun exposure.

“We had to have the guys in safe mode,” he said.

While working, maintenance crews follow one simple but critical rule: Stay out of the way of the airplanes.

“We always face the airplanes,” Gravens said. “We don’t ever turn our back in an area, because we don’t want a plane to land on us accidentally. We have to move out of the way of every airplane, no matter where it is on the airport.”