Tiny bits of garbage sucked into an airplane engine can have fatal consequences By Meg Jones
The Milwaukee (WI) Journal Sentinel
Crews from Mitchell International Airport take a comprehensive look at grassy areas near the runway safety areas while removing trash, small rocks, pieces of metal and wood, and other debris. The crew is careful to look out for nearby aircraft, such as a Southwest plane that was landing.
A line of people dressed in brightly colored vests and hats fanned out across grass to pick up litter Thursday morning.
Something you could see in any park. But this grass doesn’t get many humans walking across it, except for the maintenance workers who mow it constantly. And no pets frolic in this green space, though coyotes and other wild critters are occasionally seen.
Mitchell International Airport might seem as if it’s mostly concrete, but among the 2,000-plus acres, there’s quite a bit of grass. And stuff gets caught in grass, which means once a year the airport sends out 30 to 40 employees on a runway safety area walk.
Armed with large garbage bags and white flags to be placed in ruts and other depressions in the grass and mud, the airport workers walked about four miles on Thursday as they picked up trash along the north-south runway while military and civilian aircraft soared overhead.
“Every once in a while we find tools a mechanic has left on a wing. We found a cowling once. Sometimes we find a lot of balloons that fly in, like from graduation parties,” said Don Spitzer, airport operations coordinator.
Among the more unusual things discovered in past years are dead animals and at least one dead fish. No one is sure how the fish got there. It could have been when the airport flooded a few years ago, or perhaps it was dropped by a bird.
The annual runway walk is not just to keep the airport clean. There is a safety issue with debris on runways, because even tiny bits of garbage sucked into an airplane engine can have fatal consequences.
One of the most well-known incidents involving such debris was the 2000 crash of a Concorde supersonic jet on takeoff in Paris. A 17-inch-long strip of metal fell off another plane minutes before Air France Flight 4590 traveled down the same runway. The metal pierced the Concorde’s tire and a chunk of tire debris struck the wing, igniting a fire. All 109 on board the Concorde and four people on the ground were killed.
The safety areas at Mitchell include 250 feet of grass on each side of the runways and 1,000 feet at each end.
“I think we’ve seen how important it is to have a safety area,” said Chris Lukas, maintenance manager.
“The whole purpose is if a plane has a problem, they can come onto the safety area. That’s the reason we have to groom the edges,” Lukas said.
On Thursday, the cleanup crew started at the south end of the north-south runway in the recently completed safety area over College Ave.
While the group worked its way down the safety areas next to the 2-mile-long runway, the air traffic control tower monitored its movements and advised the workers when it was safe to walk across active runways. Southwest and Delta flights landed in front of the group, and Wisconsin Air National Guard 128th Refueling Wing crews practiced “touch and gos” on the east-west runway.
Workers will do a safety walk on the east-west runway next week.
It’s not the only time the the runways and safety areas are cleaned, though. Maintenance crews inspect the runways and grassy areas three times a day, once each shift. The FAA requires twice daily inspections at airports. Once a year the comprehensive safety area walk is done to ensure nothing is missed.
Maintenance workers Scott Toro and David Biedenbender carried fistfuls of white flags they placed in ruts and holes and checked under clumps of cut grass for debris. Wheel ruts and holes could impede emergency vehicles or damage aircraft skidding off the runway. Maintenance crews following behind the workers checked all of the spots with white flags to fill in with dirt or plant grass seed.
In the winter, Toro and Biedenbender sometimes find things in snow piled up at the ramps where luggage is unloaded, including cellphones, luggage locks and handles, and wheel chocks used to place under aircraft landing gear.
They spend much of their workdays out on the tarmac and ramps, which can get quite hot in the summer.
“The thing that drives you crazy is there’s no shade. You don’t realize it until you get out here,” said Toro.
Added Biedenbender: “It’s like being on a tanning board.”
Each year, crews from Mitchell International Airport, do a complete inspection and debris removal of the airports runways.