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Local airports can handle the snow. Ice is another story


It took Pittsfield Municipal Airport until Thursday afternoon to clear ice that lingered from a weekend storm.

PITTSFIELD — Flights in and out of Berkshire County this week essentially stopped because local runways were closed because of a thick covering of ice. A perfect mess of freezing rain and clear, cool runways left pilots and airport staff stranded.

For days, the Federal Aviation Administration's notices to airmen, or NOTAMs, as they are known in the aviation industry, read the same for the airports in North Adams, Pittsfield and Great Barrington: RWY CLSD. Runway closed. But, that all changed when a brief 30-degree high allowed crews to finally make use of cracks in the ices and clear county runways.

The Harriman and West Airport in North Adams was the first to break free, with runways back in order by 1 p.m. Wednesday. The Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington was next, returning to fully operational status at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Pittsfield Municipal Airport cleared the last of its ice Thursday afternoon.

Dan Shearer, the Pittsfield airport manager, said that last weekend's weather brought business at local airports to a halt because freezing rain left an estimated "quarter-inch of ice on most surfaces."

"I've anecdotally talked to some of the longer-term tenants here, and users, and they said this is the worst they've seen it in terms of a such a thick layer of ice," Shearer said.

Shearer said that, typically, the airport staff can let the morning sun do the heavy lifting and wait for the ice to begin melting. But, the frigid temperatures this week left the thick layer of ice solidly in place.

For an airport of Pittsfield's size and finances, there are few options. Any chemicals or materials used to treat the runways have to be approved by the FAA and safe for use with the aluminum bodies of planes. 

"[Sand] is good for adding some traction, but a sheet of ice is still a sheet of ice, and it doesn't actually let us reopen the runway," Shearer said. "The treatments, typically, let us scrape the ice off."

The materials that small airports can buy to treat runways come at a hefty cost. Shearer said one 55-gallon drum of solution — it would cover one 10-foot section of runway — costs $800 to $1,000. The runway at Pittsfield is nearly a mile long and would require several passes of the solution.

Shearer said he is trying to think of creative solutions if Berkshire winters continue to be heavy on the ice. One potential option: invest in an ice-breaking machine favored by the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska. 

"I think, unfortunately, Berkshire County got hit hard with that ice, and the airports just aren't equipped to prevent and remove ice accumulation of this this magnitude," Shearer said.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

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