Steamboat airport takes a page from ski resorts

February 12, 2013

snowy runway

An experiment in creating safe runway overruns with snow is under way at a Colorado mountain airport. So far, two pilots have inadvertently tested effectiveness of the never-before-tried snow overruns.

The test at the city of Steamboat Springs Airport (KSBS) began in mid-December after longtime airport manager Mel Baker decided there had to be a better way to handle the 354 inches (29.5 feet) of annual snowfall at the ski resort city.

Removing runway snow is an ongoing winter chore for all snowbelt general aviation airports, but the wing-snagging snowbanks created by plowing led many airports to shove or blow the snowbanks farther from the runway. FAA standards for runway safety areas mean the snowbanks must be moved 30 to 50 feet, depending on their height. “It’s just a huge expense,” says Baker, who has worked at the Steamboat Springs airport for almost 20 years.

So this season, rather than blowing snowbanks farther away, airport employee David Shively is using a large Snowcat machine borrowed from the city’s parks and recreation department to compact—crush—the snow in place. It flattens the four-to-five-foot snowbanks to just two or three inches. Shively then grooms the snow just as resort ski trails are groomed. According to Baker, the procedure creates smooth, airplane-friendly overruns all around the runway, saves hours of airport work crew time, and cuts annual snow-clearing expenses by about 90 percent. The timing of his test was fortuitous, since the test month turned out to be the fourth snowiest December on record.

Both inadvertent tests of the newly created overruns involved aircraft sliding off the end of the airport’s 4,452 foot runway, which is at an elevation of 6,882 feet. Neither overrun resulted in any injury or damage, unlike a pair of pre-snow-overrun-experiment accidents that flipped a Cirrus SR22, breaking its main wing spar, and collapsed the gear of a Piper Meridian. 

There’s only one question yet unanswered about the safety-enhancing snow overruns: How long will they last?

“Don’t know,” said Baker. “We’re still testing. Ask me about the middle of May.”