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A Different Kind of Academic All-Nighter

February 7, 2008

I love going to classes that have a valid and practical connection to the real world. Theoretical stuff always turns me off to learning and I find I check out way too easily. When looking around for a class to take last semester, a professor suggested I take Advanced Airport Operations and Planning, since I enjoyed their Airport Planning and Administration class immensely at the time. I’m the only non-airport management student in the class but figured the topics covered would provide a great background for that aviation education career I’m looking towards in the next few years.

One of the requirements for the class is a ride-along observation of an airfield inspection. The airport operations guys in Grand Forks do their inspections at 4PM and 3AM. We were faced with a choice–the inspection at 4PM would be easy to manage, but would literally be a 20 minute ridealong. The 3AM ridealong with their night shift guy guarantees an experience that usually takes an hour (or in my case 2 1/2). Of course, this comes at the cost of having to pull an almost-all-nighter. I opted for the 3AM ride knowing I didn’t have anything to do the next day until 12PM. Here’s my timeline of events from the fabled ride-along:

2:30AM: I head out on the lonely streets of Grand Forks toward the airport. The temperature is a balmy -8 Fahrenheit and I’ve already taken my contacts out and put them back in.

2:45AM: I chase a cargo Beechcraft 1900 on approach into Grand Forks down the airport road. He wins, but not by much. I’m met at the door to the airport operations building by the night ops guy Wayne. We immediately get into the airport’s main inspection vehicle (an SUV) and make our way over to the recently landed airplane so the pilot can sign some paperwork.

2:50AM: It’s airport inspection time. We drive to the end of runway 35L and use the onboard computer to take a reading of the traction on the runway. This process involves looking around for snow (there was none, so this test was a sample for my sake) and then accelerating to 20 mph, upon which the brakes are swiftly applied. The computer takes measurements down the length of the runway and averages it out. This helps the airlines serving the airport determine their feasibility for takeoff.

2:51AM: We’re still driving along the 7349 foot long runway, this time looking for burnt out lights. At this point Wayne tells me he is afraid of electricity for the first of many times. As someone who’s been shocked pretty good before, I completely understand.

2:52AM: After pulling off the runway we notice the door to the back of the baggage claim area of the terminal is sitting wide open.  A few four letter words about Northwest Airlines’ ground handling company are expressed and the door is closed. We continue checking the various runway and taxiway surfaces and lights for any issues while talking about my honors thesis topic.

2:59AM: We’re back in the airport operations building filling out the mandatory runway safety report using Microsoft Access. It’s supposed to be fairly automated and foolproof but having me around meant that it broke. What was supposed to upload to the airport’s website ended up just sitting there. The report is instead printed and faxed to the parties that need it.

3:10AM: It’s show-and-tell time at the airport. I get an in-depth look at the airport’s ambulance and two fire trucks. We play around with the department’s handheld FLIR (infrared camera) and look at all the pretty switches and dials on each of the trucks.

3:15AM: My dreams are realized and I’m an 8 year-old again! I’m going to get to go for a ride on a fire truck!

3:16AM: I’m all strapped in. We depart from the airport operations building and begin driving around the tarmac. This specific truck has built-in FLIR. We can see the heat of recently-run jet engines and even note how much gasoline is in the airport’s storage tanks. If it were above zero we’d get to spray the water cannon. I’ll have to save that until later this year.

3 :18 AM: We barrel through a snowdrift of to the edge of a taxiway. In a typical man moment, Wayne remarks “and that was only in 2 wheel drive mode!” I chuckle.

3:30AM: My ride has unfortunately come to an end. I marvel as Wayne backs the truck up into its garage without so much as a flinch. I can barely back my sedan into a parking place with two empty spots surrounding it. The skill present here was one that I could easily look up to.

3:45AM: I spend the next hour learning about snow removal equipment and what works best for certain conditions. I look at many examples of snow plows, snow blowers and snow throwers. There was even a pile of heated sand to look at. We also go into the room where the airport’s lighting is regulated and Wayne once again mentions that this is the scariest room at the entire airport. There is a rather large diesel generator used for when the power goes out that is apparently very loud. Luckly it didn’t come on during the tour.

4:35AM: I’m back at the airport operations building, shooting the breeze with Wayne about life at the airport. He invites me to do another ride-along when it’s warmer so we can go spray water out of the firetruck (8 year-old dream #2). He’s a guy who clearly loves his job and sharing what he does with people going into the industry. It was an opportunity well worth the lack of sleep. I make it home and fall into bed, still in disbelief that I got to drive in a fire truck.

This ride-along was the final convincing I needed to set-up a ride-along with the Grand Forks Police Department as a way to provide material for a better-backgrounded opinion article for the Dakota Student. That’s coming on Friday night and I can’t wait. I’ll of course have another log here after-the-fact.

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