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Tough Jobs Tuesday: Airport Plow Drivers

Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City sees planes coming and going throughout the day.

And in the winter, it takes a hard working crew to make sure the runways stay snow free and clear for landing and takeoff.

In Tough Jobs Tuesday, 9&10’s David Lyden shows us what goes into being a snowplow driver at the airport.

“All of us, especially these guys, work long hours, many days in a row. This is why we’re here in the wintertime, they need us to plow,” says Dan Sal, assistant director of operations and maintenance.

It’s a hub of travel in Northern Michigan, Cherry Capital Airport, bringing hundreds of people to and from Northern Michigan every day, but in the winter they’re tasked with a big challenge – snow on the runway.

“Unlike the roads you travel on with the cars and the trucks out in the public, ours has to be down to the pavement for the pilots that are coming in and out, so we have really good friction on the runways and the taxiways that they’re using,” says Dan.

Cherry Capital uses these machines to help clear the snow from the runways, keeping them safe for planes to land and take-off.

“It’s a 24 foot wide blade in front. The back trailer has a broom spinning and it has a set of air, it blows air with quite a lot of force, so it helps clean it up,” says plow driver Gary Flores. “You kind of develop a little bit of a pattern that works best for all of these connectors and all of the taxiways and make as few passes as you can.”

It’s a nonstop job, keeping plow drivers on the job for hours at a time in ever changing conditions.

“Sometimes we’re at 10 or 14 hours or whatever it requires,” explains Gary. “In the winter, of course, is our big time and it’s continuous. We’ll be here day after day, might be here 10 or 12 days in a row sometimes, and they’re long, just long days, there’s not a lot of scenery here.”

 And through those long, cold, grueling hours, constant attention to detail and their surroundings is required for the plow drivers.

“You can’t make any mistakes out there. You have to make sure that you’re on you’re a-game, listening to the air traffic controllers, listening to the supervisors, also watching the gages in the truck,” explains Dan.

But sometimes the condition simply get to be too bad and plowing, along with flights coming and going, has to stop.

“Low visibility times, when the aircrafts aren’t operating, generally below a quarter mile visibility. What starts that is you’ll hear one guy say to another one, ‘I can’t see you’ then the next guy goes ‘I can’t see you either’, OK stop the vehicles, everybody stop where they are. If we’re on the runway, we’ll try and exit the runway,” says Dan.  

Even though it can be a tough and challenging job, the airport knows it’s one where a good job never goes unnoticed.

“For this size airport, we get a lot of compliments. I’ve heard over and over again ‘you guys do a wonderful job’,” says Dan. “Flights are coming in on time and it’s a safe operation, can’t ask for anything else.”