Keeping the flights on: How the Yampa Valley Airport keeps the runway clear during the winter’s worst storms
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — These recent days of sunshine have provided a welcome respite for many Routt County residents who have grown weary, physically and mentally, of dealing with a flurry of winter storms that, at times, seemed like the arrival of Snowmageddon.
For Kevin Booth, director of the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, the calm weather has given maintenance crews a much-needed chance to catch up on their work, rather than rushing to remove snow and ice to allow planes to land.
“Sunny days tend to go very smoothly,” Booth said.
Snowy days, particularly this winter, tell a different story.
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Booth recently celebrated the start of his sixth year directing the airport. In that time, he has never seen such extreme storms as pummeled the Yampa Valley this winter.
The airport is open every day of the year — come rain, wind or the more than 2 feet of snow that arrived over President’s Day weekend in mid-February. That particular storm was one of the worst Booth has witnessed, and it required herculean efforts from the airport’s snow removal crew to keep the runway clear.
February storms wreaked havoc throughout Routt County, with many roads becoming impassable at times as even plow trucks got stuck or ran out of gas. One resident even called police to complain about the berms piling ever higher near his home.
If people think removing snow from a driveway is hard work, imagine that driveway extending the length of 33 football fields, completely covered in snow.
The snow removal crew usually comprises about seven employees who operate the plow trucks, snowblowers, skid-steer loaders and other machinery that clears the runway. On President’s Day weekend, Booth had to double to the crew size, pulling in extra employees who typically work in the terminal.
As the snow arrived at the start of the weekend, one person awoke at 2 a.m. to begin storm watch duty. Owing to the severity of the snowfall, the rest of the crew got to the airport at 4 a.m., barely able to see the road through the sheets of white.
To keep up with the plummeting snow, the crew deployed every piece of heavy machinery in its arsenal. The first flights were scheduled for 6 a.m., so time was sparse. Crew members worked in tandem to clear the runway as quickly as possible. While some vehicles scooped snow from the runway, others blew the snow onto the infield in the center of the runway.
“I’ve never heard of us using all three snowblowers at the same time, but we did that day,” Booth said.
On such particularly stormy days, the maintenance crew must stay until the last commercial flight arrives, around 9 p.m. With no beds for them, employees sometimes nap on office chairs to get some rest before heading out again.
Maintenance supervisor Todd DuBois has worked on the airport’s snow removal crew for 18 years. He described his job as unpredictable, which is part of the reason he enjoys it.
“You don’t know when the storms might come,” DuBois said.
Heavy snowfall in the winter is no surprise to Booth, as is the case with anyone who has outlasted a winter in the Yampa Valley. While he does not think this season has been particularly snowy — the area’s snowpack is just above average, about 115% as of Friday — it is the severity of this winter’s storms that has surprised the airport director.
But through all of the snow, the airport has never had to close its runway this winter, Booth said. Closures are rare and temporary, he added. In the time that he has worked there, the airport has only had to close the runway a handful of times, usually for less than an hour, as crews clear it for landing.
Most of the delays and cancellations that occur, Booth explained, are due to poor conditions at the airports where planes are travelling to or from.
“It is rarely weather in Hayden that causes delays or cancellations,” he said.
If past years are any indication, winter likely will keep its snowy grasp on the Yampa Valley for the foreseeable future, despite the recent lull of sunshine. March and April can be the snowiest months of the year, according to snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
DuBois isn’t too worried about the storms to come. After almost two decades of removing snow at the airport, he takes pride in his work.
“You can see what you’ve done. You’ve moved all that snow,” DuBois said. “It makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
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