June 12, 2024

Michigan’s Willow Run Airport (YIP) recently received the prestigious 2023-2024 Col. Bernt Balchen/Wiley Post Award, which recognizes airports for excellence in the performance of airport snow and ice control. Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (BJC) was the runner-up in the same large general aviation (GA) category.

Ensuring GA airports remain safe and operational in winter conditions is crucial to a community’s economic prosperity, support of business aviation’s core mission and for providing continuity of emergency services.

“Airports are vital to a region’s connectivity and economy,” said Willow Run Airport’s Director Michael Fawaz. Willow Run, a reliever airport for Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), hosts cargo operators who handle just-in-time shipping for major manufacturers and business aircraft operators transporting personnel. The University of Michigan Hospital, located minutes from the airport, relies on Willow Run for its medevac flights, which transport organs and other critical medical supplies to remote areas for emergency surgeries.

“One notable story from a past winter illustrates our commitment: during a blizzard, we cleared the primary runway just long enough for a medevac flight to take off on time. These organs were urgently needed, and our efforts ensured that the plane reached its destination and saved a life,” Fawaz said.

Scott Sowell, airport operations specialist at Rocky Mountain, explained the airport’s vital role as a reliever to the Denver metro area. The airport hosts scheduled public charter service by JSX and is used frequently by emergency air ambulance service. The airport also has a based-charter operation that provides human organ transport.

While the airport personnel are proud of their winter operations efforts, Sowell added, “Our goal is to maintain the same high standards year-round.”

Fawaz says successful winter operations starts with people.

“Our maintenance personnel are always available during snow and ice events, regardless of the time. We operate with two 12-hour shifts during such events, allowing us to work 24/7 without delay. Our airfield operations team also works around the clock to assess conditions, communicate with the tower, and manage runway openings and closures. Finally, our fleet team maintains our equipment in good condition and quickly repairs any equipment that breaks down during a storm,” Fawaz explained.

Sowell added comprehensive planning is critical to managing winter weather events.

“We develop a plan based on the forecast within 48 hours of each storm event that remains consistent with our snow and ice control plan (SICP). This is accomplished by adjusting staffing schedules to provide an equal amount of personnel for each shift throughout the storm. Our SICP is refined each year to create improvements to our systems and procedures. From staffing to airside and landside priorities, the SICP is the backbone of our winter operations,” said Sowell.

NBAA is a member of the award selection committee that evaluates applications from military airfields and commercial and general aviation airports.

“NBAA congratulates Willow Run Airport and Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport for this prestigious recognition,” said Alex Gertsen, CAM, NBAA’s director of airports and ground infrastructure. “This award is industry’s acknowledgement of these airports’ exemplary efforts to keep operations running safely during winter weather events.”

Gertsen noted no nominations were received for the small GA airport category for the 2023-2024 season. Recommendations for award nominees may be sent to winterops@nbaa.org.

The Balchen/Post Award was first presented in 1977. Learn more about the award.