Steamboat Springs It took only a few short moments after Stephen Textor’s plane touched down on the runway at Steamboat Springs Airport on Dec. 29th for the experienced pilot to realize he was in trouble.
He felt he had followed the correct procedures on landing, but when he tapped on the brakes to slow the plane’s speed, he realized it wasn’t going to stop before he reached the end of the runway.
“I was thinking the worst,” Textor said Monday. “I tapped the brakes, but I knew that we were not going to make it. Everybody was still strapped in and our speed was slow enough that I knew nobody was going to get hurt, but I thought I might total the plane."
What the Minnesota-based pilot didn’t realize is that the crews at Steamboat Springs Airport have taken a different approach to handling the snow that typically piles up around and at the end of the runways each winter.
Instead of simply meeting the Federal Aviation Administration's standards by pushing the snow back as far as possible and then blowing it a mandatory distance from the end of the runway, crews at the city-owned airport have begun to use the snow as an engineered materials arresting system, or EMAS. By doing so, the airport can reduce 3 feet of snow into about 4 or 5 inches of EMAS.
The process also has eliminated the usual icy bank that pilots, including Textor, might have expected to find after overshooting the runway safety area at a mountain airport. Pilots landing at Steamboat Springs Airport now find several inches of sand-like material in that area, which airport manager Mel Baker says can safely stop and support an airplane if it leaves the runway. He thinks Steamboat Springs Airport is the only one currently tilling and compacting snow, and he insists that it is more economical than what the airport has done in the past.
The airport began using the system a couple of weeks ago after the city's Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department agreed to loan the airport a snowcat. Baker said it took longtime snowcat operator David “Marv” Shively about 10 hours to complete what used to take 60 to 80 hours to plow and clear.
"The old way would have taken at least two weeks," Shively said. "Sometimes you just have to think outside the box. This is completely opposite of what we were doing before, but it works."
In the past, Baker said crews would have to plow and blow snow away from the area, which takes more time and is more expensive than turning the snow into EMAS.
EMAS, in the form of sand and gravel, has been used for years on runaway truck ramps, but Baker has wanted to employ the same idea, using snow, on an experimental basis at Steamboat Springs Airport for years.
He had hoped to implement the program last year, but there simply was not enough snow. But December’s storms provided just what Baker needed to test his idea.
“It’s pretty common,” Baker said about planes running off the runway at Steamboat Springs Airport. He said the rate of incidents is caused by a number of factors, including weather, a pilot’s experience flying in the higher altitude of mountain airports, and the tricky conditions on runways in the Rocky Mountains.
Instead of spending money to push snow back and then blow it to safe areas, the airport began tilling the snow in the setbacks and compacting it into a thinner layer of material that still meets FAA standards. The idea not only solves the airport’s snow storage problem, but also creates a layer of EMAS that slows and supports planes that find their way off the landing strip. Baker said the idea has been supported the past couple of weeks after airplanes left the runway in two separate incidents. In addition to Textor's close call, another plane ran off the runway on Christmas Eve.
Baker said in both cases the outcome could have been much worse.
Baker points to an incident where a small plane ran off the runway in 2009 in the same place where Textor exited it in late December.
“That plane hit a bank that was about 20 inches tall,” Baker recalls. “The nose wheel failed, the plane flipped into the snow. Thankfully there were no serious injuries, but the plane was totaled.”
In the two most recent incidents, the planes slid off the runway, but the tilled and compacted snow slowed and supported the planes until they stopped. Both aircraft were pulled back onto the runway with no damage and flew away a few days later.
‘”I was amazed,” Textor said. “I was ready for the nose to drop and the propeller to hit the ground … I thought the plane was going to be a total loss. Somebody had a really good idea and I’m glad.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com