Clearing The Way

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With winter closing in, Dan Gilkes from JCB explains how the company is helping London Luton Airport to remain operational.

Winter duties remain the main focus of the Fastrac fleet. (All images: JCB)

With many UK airports suffering delays from winter weather in the last two years, reports that disruptive snow could be a feature for the third winter running was the last thing that many in the industry wanted to hear.  However Gary Clark, Transport Manager for London Luton Airport, takes a positive approach to the airport’s ability to cope with inclement conditions.  His department is well prepared for cold weather, with a line-up of 11 JCB Fastracs providing the core of a highly specialised fleet of maintenance machinery.

London Luton purchased its first four Fastracs in 2004, following trials of a number of alternative vehicles to replace ageing Magirus-Deutz 4×4 trucks.  JCB offered to build a Fastrac to London Luton’s specification, with a fifth wheel to allow the vehicle to tow snow brushes and other attachments.

“We wanted the machine de-cluttered,” says Mr Clark.  “We didn’t want any agricultural towing kit or three-point linkage.  But we did need a rear power take-off to drive a de-icer tanker.”

JCB supplied the machines with Bunce plates on the front, to allow coupling of snow ploughs and other implements, and cut off the higher of three speed ranges to limit top speed to 20mph (32km/h), rather than the standard 40mph (64km/h) of which the regular Fastrac is capable.

“We try to stick as much as possible to standard equipment and couplings, to make the machines as interchangeable as possible,” says Mr Clark.

Following extensive trials, the Fastrac was found to be ideal for the task, resulting in the purchase of the four machines.  These were followed by two additional Fastracs in 2008, two more in 2009 and a ninth machine in 2010.  London Luton has also purchased two second-hand Fastracs for general duties around the airport.

The JCBs all have dedicated brackets inside the cab that can take controls for the attachments are used at the airport.  They also come with heated glazing all round the cab, heated mirrors and additional working lights for night time operation.  Indeed, since the purchase of those first machines, this has effectively become an ‘airport specification’ within JCB’s Fastrac offering, that can be ordered ready-built from the factory.

London Luton opted for smaller 24” (61cm) wheels with road-going tyres, reducing the height of the chassis to allow the fifth wheel to run at truck height for the towed snow brushes.  JCB has also supplied extra heavy-duty lift cylinders at the rear of the machine to cope with the nose weight of the towed brushes.

Furthermore, the support of local Fastrac dealer Oliver Agriculture in Luton has been a major factor in the growth of the fleet at the airport.

“Our operators like the visibility and comfort of the Fastrac, and JCB provides lifetime support for parts, which was a deciding factor,” says Mr Clark.

An additional point in the Fastrac’s favour is that it is not just a snow clearing or de-icing machine.  The tractors are also used in the summer months with grass-cutting attachments and harrows to maintain the airfield.

“We were looking for something that would top the grass in the summer and pull a de-icer in the winter,” says Mr Clark.

However airports are rarely closed for having long grass and so winter duties remain the main focus of the Fastrac fleet.  The high-speed tractors are used with 13ft (4m) Cuthbertson or Eagle Airfield front-mounted ploughs.  They also tow Knight airfield de-icing trailers with 79ft (24m) booms and 1,540 Imp gal (7,000 litre) tanks, enough to cover the runway in a single pass.

As the runway at London Luton is 171ft (52m) wide and 6,562ft (2,000m) long, the Fastrac can spray de-icer in two runs, once along one side and then returning on the other side, taking just 20 minutes to cover the entire runway.

“We’re looking for a 20-minute window to complete a run between aircraft if we have to,” says Mr Clark.

The de-icer booms can also be reduced to a 39ft (12m) width to allow the machines to work on taxiways and even aircraft stands.  While snowfall regularly attracts the attention of the media and travelling passengers, de-icing work is far more commonplace, particularly as London Luton Airport sits on top of a windswept hill.

The build up of ice on a runway reduces the friction between aeroplane wheels and the ground, extending braking distances.  It is therefore important to prevent icing by spraying de-icer fluid as temperatures drop.

“We can be involved in de-icing up to 60 days a year,” says Mr Clark.  “But we may only get one or two snow events in a year.”

If the snow does fall, London Luton uses a combination of Overaasen RS200 towed brushes and BEMA front-mounted sweepers to keep the runway and taxiways clear.

Excellent visibility, superior operator comfort and multi-plate wet clutches make the Fastrac an ideal snow clearing machine, and one that is popular with the operators at the airport.  The wet clutches have greatly reduced the maintenance required to keep the fleet mobile.

The Fastracs require just one service per year as they can operate for as few as 50 hours of operation annually.  This rises to around 200 hours if used for grass topping during the summer, with this work rotated through the fleet.  Cleaning to remove de-icer fluid is the only regular maintenance required, as the fluid is fairly corrosive.  Other than that, there have been few problems with the Fastracs and they look set to serve the airfield for many years to come.

“With most vehicles we tend to run cradle-to-grave, which can mean ten years for larger plant,” says Mr Clark.  “But we will probably keep the JCBs for another ten years, so we will run them for more than 20 years in total.”

This entry was posted in Airports, Contracts, Environment, Features.

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