Big machines: The airport Kodiaks

No drift too large for these monsters.

Photo by Michael Cummo

The second blizzard of 2015 hit Martha’s Vineyard Airport with fiercer winds than the first blizzard. Though Neptune left behind fewer inches than the first storm, it was still a chore for the airport’s snow crews to tidy up after.

The snow crews at Martha’s Vineyard Airport need to get rid of snow — whether in the form of a flurry or a blizzard — as swiftly as possible, not only to keep regular air traffic flowing, but to make sure that the helicopter and fixed-wing medical evacuations that occur there almost weekly aren’t hampered.

To clear its 8,832 feet of runway, along with the rest of the airport, Martha’s Vineyard Airport deploys a fleet of two Freightliner 10-wheel dump trucks mounted with plows, two front-end loaders (a Caterpillar and a Michigan), a plow-mounted Sterling dump truck, a Bobcat, and five Ford pickup trucks fitted with plows. But that equipment isn’t enough. To make sure no snow event ever overwhelms the airport, the fleet gained two Kodiaks in 2011 — giant snow trucks manufactured by Kodiak America of Burley, Idaho.

Informally called Snowman One and Snowman Two by airport personnel, both trucks have long, trapezoidal bodies and squarish, single-seat cabs. Each also has a heavy-duty Allison transmission and a Marmon-Herrington transfer case, conferring all-wheel drive. One is configured to plow snow, while the other is configured to blow or brush snow.

Aside from their size and stark yellow color, another visually striking thing about these machines is how spick-and-span they are. Good upkeep is only part of the reason why they’re so clean.

“They normally do not operate on the streets where sand and salt are spread,” Airport Manager Sean Flynn said in an email to The Times. “They operate on the runways and taxiways on fresh clean snow.”

Furthermore, unlike municipal plow trucks that typically sand while plowing, neither of these machines spreads sand or salt. They have no dump bodies or beds of any kind to hold those materials. Everything under the metal skin behind their cabs is mechanical. And since salt is anathema to aircraft, according to Mr. Flynn, it isn’t used at airports anyway. Martha’s Vineyard Airport uses sand only in the parking lots and in the business park.

The airport’s Kodiak plow is powered by a 500-horsepower Caterpillar engine and outfitted with a 16-foot Henke airport snowplow. The snowplow is shaped like a cresting wave. That extreme curvature keeps snow from flying backward into the windshield. As a further preventive measure, a snow deflector, essentially a strip of flaps, is affixed to the top edge of the plow; it looks similar to a length of plastic garden edging. Both the business side and the backside (in between the support ribs) of the snowplow are armored in orange with ⅜-inch polycarbonate. The rest of the snowplow is painted yellow. For added stability, the snowplow runs on a pair of solid rubber snow wheels. A second attachment to the Kodiak plow is a 10-foot scraper mounted on its underside. Similar to the way a grader’s blade works on earth, the scraper uses the mass and motion of the truck to shave away ice and hardened snow that a plow would skip across.

For snow of any real depth, the Kodiak snow blower truck uses its namesake snow-blowing head. But when snowfall is light enough, the Kodiak snow blower can be fitted with a 20-foot rotary broom head.

“It works well when there is a dusting of two to four inches of light fluffy snow,” Airport Operations Supervisor Marques Rivers said in an email to The Times. “The broom sweeps the snow to one side, and the air blast blows air from under the truck at 400 mph, pushing the fluffy snow off the pavement, past the runway lights. It does not work well with heavy wet snow; it just clogs the bristles with slush.”

The air blast comes from a Kodiak custom hydrostatic blower, essentially a leaf blower writ large — very large. It’s part of the broom assembly, and independent of the blower apparatus. In addition to the 500-horsepower engine the Kodiak plow has, the Kodiak snow blower sports an 800-horsepower Caterpillar engine. That powers the truck’s snow-blowing system. With its terrifying four-blade ribbon auger and a consumption rate of 5,000 tons per hour, the snow-blowing head, not the rotary broom, tackled Juno.

That blizzard was an ordeal for the airport’s snow crews. It forced them to close the airport at midnight on the 27th of January. Without the Kodiak snow blower, reopening less than 48 hours later, at 4 am on the 29th, might not have been possible. This is partly because the storm buried several smaller machines in 20-foot drifts.

“It was a huge challenge! At one point early Tuesday morning, there were four pieces of equipment stuck in snowdrifts,” Mr. Rivers said. “I used the blower to clear the drifts, then pull them out.”

Juno’s winds created drifts so huge at the end of the main runway that Mr. Rivers was forced to drive outside the snow blower’s prescribed area and attack what was becoming a white hillside advancing across Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

“I cleared the road so the state plows could get through,” he said.

Neptune’s lighter snow proved less of a challenge for the airport’s snow-removal equipment, but its lightness also allowed it to be easily whipped up into whiteouts.

“This storm was better for us because the type of snow was so light and fluffy,” said Mr. Rivers. “It’s much easier for us to move, as opposed to heavy wet snow. The worst thing about this storm was the wind. Visibility was only a few feet Sunday morning [Feb. 8]. And the drifts were huge. We closed the airport Saturday at 6:45 pm, and reopened half the airport at 6:30 am on Monday and the entire airport at 9 pm.”

Islanders tempted to shop for a Kodiak snow blower of their own should be prepared for sticker shock. According to Brek Pilling, Kodiak America’s manager, they cost $750,000 each. Bargain hunters could settle for the Kodiak plow, a steal at $300,000.

If your car gets caught in an enormous snowdrift somewhere near the airport, you shouldn’t count on Mr. Rivers rumbling out in a Kodiak to dig you free, but by the same token, you shouldn’t be surprised if he does.