Polar Vortex impacts general aviation

You would have had to be living in an ice cave to miss all the media hype about the unusual cold weather gripping the United States in the first week of January. The weather phenomenon known as the “Polar Vortex” provided great fodder for dramatic images of frozen and barren highways, giving the impression that all transportation stopped — including air travel. Indeed many airlines delayed or cancelled flights, stranding some passengers for days.

But at many general aviation airports, the cold weather didn’t slow air traffic at all.

The reason, said Jim Stanczak, airport manager at Waukegan National Airport (KUGN) near Chicago, is that there was plenty of time to prepare.

“We had a lot of warning,” he said.“We have a snow plan, so it doesn’t matter if it is a big storm or only a few inches of snow falls. We have a plan.”

KUGN, located on 535 acres approximately 35 miles north of Chicago, gets a fair share of heavy snowfalls and bitter cold. The airport has a control tower and two asphalt runways, the longest of which is 6,000 feet. According to Stanczak, the airport is home to 200 aircraft, including several jets operated by Fortune 500 companies.

Transportation is key, he noted.

“There were a few highways in the area that were closed because of the ice and snow, but we never closed down,” he said.

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He noted that before the snow season, the airport held a meeting with all the tenants to advise them of the snow plan. Because the hangars are privately owned, tenants are responsible for their own hangars, while the FBO on the field, Landmark Aviation, is responsible for its facility.

“The meeting stresses communication so the tenants are aware of what the airport staff will do during a major or minor storm,” he explained. “We have a snowplow with a 20-foot blade, followed by brooms, to keep the runways and taxiways clear for the tenants,” he said. “We work very closely with the tower and the tenants to emphasize safety. The staff does a heck of a job!”

One of the challenges of keeping the airport in operation in extreme cold is the impact it takes on people. “That comes down to common sense,” said Stanczak. “If it is too cold to go outside — don’t go outside!”

Experienced pilots and aircraft owners in areas accustomed to temperatures below freezing will tell you that it’s simply a matter of keeping the airplane in a hangar and hooking it up to a pre-heater to keep the engine from freezing. Other techniques include heating the hangar, hanging a shoplight in the cockpit to keep the instruments warm, and removing the battery after each flight so that it can be stored in a warm place (like the pilot’s home) until the plane is ready to fly again.

At airports unaccustomed to the freezing temperatures, the arrival of the Polar Vortex proved a bit more challenging. At McMinn County Airport (KMMI) in Athens, Tenn., between Knoxville and Chattanooga, the staff of Athens Air were busy battling ice.

“We had de-ice spray on hand to use on our fuel farm locks and on-off switches,” said Kristy Gentry-Cox, owner of Athens Air and manager of the airport. “Our rental cars for our corporate customers were also frozen locked. We de-iced the car locks and had the cars running with heat on when the clients landed. Most had no idea that 45 minutes earlier the cars were ice cubes!”

Gentry-Cox noted that in December the FBO cut the ribbon on a new 100- by 100-foot corporate hanger.

“Hangar space was available and taken advantage of,” she said. “Our transient customers were able to stay here with engine heaters furnished. When it was time for them to leave, the airplane was dry and it cranked right up,” she said.

During the cold snap the staff did regular inspections of the 6,000-foot runway checking for ice.

“For a short time we were reporting ice on runway 02 south of the 1,000 foot markers,” she reported. “Even though the temperature stayed cold, once the sun came out the runway ice and water quickly dried up.”

The biggest concern, says Gentry-Cox, was frozen pipes, particularly in the 1950′s era maintenance hangar.

“The insulation is limited,” she explained. “I just turned the water off at the meter, let the water run from the faucet,s and hoped for the best. Our new hangar has wonderful insulation and heaters. I turned the heaters on 50° and this building stayed comfortable. The only thing we did in the FBO was keep a little water dripping.”

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