In a recent article entitled “Mayday. Mayday” Airport memories 25 years on, a hint was made to the possibility of further revelations from the writers core career background, that of Highway and Airport Civil Engineering. This weeks article, therefore relates to a selection of just a few anecdotes of airport maintenance 'incidents' that never made the press. Before embarking on the first of these though, it is important to note that whilst the following is a mere snapshot of what were a fair few 'moments of enhanced concern', these only relate to the writers own career, implying there have been a great many more which is undoubtedly have been; but this has to be measured not only against the vast amount of air traffic movements that are incident-free even during vital maintenance, but also the volumes concerned and the immense complexity innate within 'live' airport maintenance operations.
Long haul flying from a pilots perspective, was once described to the writer by a now retired BOAC/BA pilot, as “hours and hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer panic”. This is not remotely the case for those of us who take possession of a 'live runway' at say 2200 with the imperative of handing it back in a 'fit for purpose' state at 0600 or whatever time is so designated and these can, and do vary depending upon the individual contract. At Istanbul in 2010, main contractor EKO inşaat extended and refurbished the now designated R23/05 runway but this was a full closure regime; nevertheless the $100M contact had to be completed in no greater than a 100 day duration. On one occasion, 'yours truly' looked up and spied a Turkish Airforce C160 Transall aircraft climbing out of runway 36/18 and it was clear that the No 1 engine was 'glowing a bit' (on fire actually!). The aircraft went around and landed safely at the first attempt but it was striking to the writer, that the only passing interest shown, was the attention of the fire brigade whilst no one else so much as batted an eyelid! However, it would be reasonable to suspect that the pilots were batting eyelids at both ends of their respective physiology as the event unfolded!
In Damascus, in 1999 an incident occurred that could potentially have been very serious indeed, although as it turned out, no aircraft came to grief as a result. Damascus International airport comprises of two parallel runways (23/05 L/R) and are (or were then) of a concrete construction. Rubber deposits from aircraft tyres extended between the thresholds of both runways which seriously inhibited vital skid resistance values. 'Muggins' here was charged with carrying out detailed surveys of the runway condition prior to making a project proposal. After all the rigmarole of briefing ATC (rather than the other way around in this instance!) the inspection party got to the threshold of 23L at which point, the writer alighted from the transport, preferring as always to inspect on foot.
Now, with concrete pavements, especially in very hot climates, after a number of years a phenomena can occur called 'corner curling'. Concrete slabs are laid in bays and due to the excessive heat, in time the right angled corners of the slabs can 'curl' or obtrude from the flat slab profile and with continuous aircraft impact, these protrusions can erode and fracture. What should normally happen, is that ground maintenance crews should inspect at least twice a day for FOD's (Foreign Object Debris) but if they had such a regime at Damascus in 1999, it was not regular at all for the threshold was absolutely strewn with nuggets of concrete fragments, any one of which, if ingested into a jet engine OR worse still, been drawn into and thereby trapping a control surface, has the potential to bring down an aircraft with obvious consequences. Witness too, that the Paris Air disaster involving the ill-fated Air France Concorde was the result of a single FOD item, not due to a scene reminiscent of a pebbly beach as the writer was facing here! All hell broke loose as ground maintenance crews were hurriedly scrambled to clear the pavements and effect the repairs. The language employed and the forceful nature of the writers intervention is modestly edited for the purpose of this article! Phew!
AND finally, for the purpose anyway of this particular flight down the memory airway, at London Heathrow in 1990 the contract regime there was that we took possession of the runway at 2200 with a scheduled hand-back at 0600 + 15 minutes max flexibility; but you knew when you took over the runway that dozens of heavy jets were already well on their way, plying their respective routes across the heavens and all were 'fairly keen' to land on time especially the cargo aircraft who operate under slightly different criteria (they carry less fuel!) and so the pressure was always on when working at LHR. It is anywhere, but at London Heathrow, pressure is rather greater.
We were at the stage where we were laying Porous Friction Course which is the final element of the runway surface construction or so it was in those days. This a delicate material to mix and to lay and we have the discipline of completing all laying by 0300 so as to enable the material to cure sufficiently to take aircraft. In 99.999% of the time, there are few or no problems and on this occasion there were no obvious exceptions; we completed and vacated on time and demobilised the shift. The first couple of inbound aircraft landed normally but later in the morning a BA 747 landed and in doing so, it touched down rather deeper than the 500 metre Touch Down Zone and accordingly it had to break somewhat 'enthusiastically' and as it ran over our newly laid material, it was instantly 'under-sealed' as the engines in full reverse thrust, lifted the sticky 'blackstuff leaving carnage in its path!
The runway was immediately closed so that emergency repairs could be effected and there was controlled, measured pandemonium all around! The 747 was out of service for about 9 months whilst the resultant delays and knock-on effects were mounting and mounting as were the costs, which ran into many millions of pounds. The subsequent shift proceeded as normal, but behind the scenes a contractual chess match was being played out which eventually led to BAA picking up the entire tab for the days misdemeanour’s because we successfully 'persuaded them' that it was a specification/design error on their part which could give rise to such events! The truth of the matter was that on the night in question, a vital ingredient had been left out of the mix due to plain old human error! We got away with it in other words; another 'phew'!
Airport maintenance operations were always a favourite activity for the writer during his long career especially as was the case in the latter example, when working with Mick Chalkley who was a very well respected airport project manager. There will be many more such anecdotes to share with our esteemed readers and as always, comments and feedback and your own stories and experiences are always welcome.