The roar of the occasional jet soaring into the sky filled a room adjacent to the runway at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on a recent day.
A pair of binoculars were on a windowsill, ready to be snatched up and pointed west should a pilot radio with trouble.
On one wall are six high-definition TVs, showing everything from arrivals and departures to temperatures of the air, runway and subsurface. Five cameras watch different angles of the tarmac so staff can send an alert of hazards to pilots.
This is the airport operations room, the nerve center seldom seen by the public where personnel in aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) watch the skies, the weather and the grounds to ensure the facility is running smoothly.
To an outsider, it would seem an immense responsibility. But for Scott Benesh, Garret Seddon and other members of the operations staff, driving a gigantic snow blower or suiting up in protective fire gear should a plane become in trouble, it’s all in a day’s work.
Amid winter storms, that day can begin as early as 3:30 a.m. to have the runway ready for planes by the 7 a.m. opening, said Benesh, the facilities manager, during a tour last week.
Nearly every piece of snow removal equipment is used during a big storm, he said.
That includes massive snow plows, trucks that can employ two types of de-icing chemicals or a large wire brush to rid the tarmac of ice, and another vehicle that has a fifth wheel containing computerized sensors that measure friction on the runway.
It’s a far cry from the airport’s early days, Benesh said. The present-day technology is “leaps and bounds” over what existed when he started 25 years ago.
The first fire truck for the airport was kept in a large dog house built adjacent to Tom Sardy’s residence, he recalled. The late Sardy was a county commissioner who spearheaded in 1957 the construction of the facility’s first paved runway to replace the gravel landing strip.
“It was different but a lot of fun,” Benesh said. “You got to see a lot of things grow.
“Every single piece of improvement to make our jobs easier and to make it safer to the traveling public has been memorable to me.”
That includes a vehicle that can drive right up to one of the runway’s hundreds of lights and sweep snow from around it. The cleaning attachment has saved countless hours, as the process once involved operations staff shoveling the lights out by hand, said Dustin Havel, assistant aviation director.
For a facility with an $8.7 million annual budget, battling snow and ice “is a very big part of our job,” he said.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the airport’s vehicle fleet is its rapid-response vehicle.
ARFF uses a Striker 1500, a roughly 27-ton behemoth which, with its 3-foot-tall tires, looks more like a futuristic tank than an emergency-response vehicle.
Housed in a cavernous space next to the tarmac, the vehicle is specially designed for planes, as is the training that the airport’s firefighters receive, said Seddon, training, safety and standards coordinator.
With a price tag of $800,000 or so, the Striker has an infrared camera that seeks out hot spots on planes. It can carry 1,500 gallons of water and 200 gallons of foam that can be used to attack oil fires, and it also harbors everything from hydraulic-powered “jaws-of-life” apparatuses and torches to simple wooden corks that can plug fuel leaks.
It takes 40 hours of training to operate the Striker, be ready to enter a plane in distress and handle the other myriad tasks the operations staff sees, Seddon said.
Prospective members of the base operations crew are sent to other states that have more money and room for training facilities, he said.
The Salt Lake City airport, for instance, has a “live burn pit” in which an aircraft is set alight for trainees.
“So they simulate the fire, and we put the fire out with the apparatus that they provide,” Seddon said. “You fight internal fires, rescue dummies. You get to feel the smoke, that confined space.”
Back in Aspen, crew members are trained on the various pieces of equipment and also are timed to ensure they can quickly gear up in fire suits and self-contained breathing apparatus, he said.
Operations staff, who are paid between $19 and $28 an hour, are required to respond to incidents within three minutes. Having firefighters on standby is a requirement by the Federal Aviation Administration, one that is based on the size of the aircraft Sardy Field serves.
FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the requirement has long been in place.
“It’s all about safety,” he said.
Havel elaborated: “You want immediate response.” Part of the necessity involves the thin fuselages on aircraft and “how fast the flames can burn through planes,” he said.
The gear and the Striker’s water- and foam-carrying capacity also are specific to aircraft, as opposed to traditional fire departments accustomed to battling structure and wildland fires, Benesh said.
“We have enough chemicals to fight huge fires,” he said.
Incidents come in three ways, Seddon said, all of which trigger sirens and radios throughout the operations center, which is tucked into a hillside on Owl Creek Road south of the main terminal.
A stage one alert can mean a minor problem, like a pilot reporting a slight drop in oil pressure, he said. Stage two can be something that is imminent, like a hydraulic failure, a dead engine or landing gear that is malfunctioning. The third stage is an airplane has crashed.
On June 7, a Learjet skidded off the runway after its landing gear malfunctioned. The passengers were unhurt, but the operations staff was left with the chore of removing the plane. A construction crew working on the runway happened to have a crane, which was used, along with some heavy-duty straps, to lift the aircraft up and away, Havel said.
Operations personnel plan and train for various situations, but each incident “is unique in its own way,” Benesh said.
Boredom is seldom, he said. There are always at least two members on duty to cover from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and the hours are filled with multiple inspections of the runway and grounds from the observation room, in vehicles and on foot, which generate reports. And, of course, there is the chore of snow removal to keep the planes coming and going.
“The list is so long,” Benesh said. “We’re constantly working at it.”
Airport director Jim Elwood said those who take to the skies should recline easily knowing the effort his crews undertake, techniques that are continuously refined.
“We’re [also] very fortunate to have great relationships with our mutual aid partners,” he said, mentioning the fire departments in Aspen and Snowmass. “The public should be comfortable knowing they’re well-trained to spot issues at the airport.”