1600 hours, 1st  Oct may just seem like any other day to many people on station but from this date until 1 Apr personnel in MT tend to pay particular attention to the station tannoy announcements.

This date and time is the start of the Blacktop Season.  The Blacktop Season involves many sections and personnel from around the station including MT, ATC, Ops, Met, MTMS and GEF to name but a few.  It primarily falls to MT, ATC and Ops to make sure Coningsby’s Airfield remains open all year round.  You may think that there isn’t a great deal to be done as it’s only a bit of snow or ice, but even the smallest amount of snow or ice on the runway could have disastrous consequences to operations at Coningsby, particularly with respect to QRA.

Keeping the runway clear for aircraft operations is the number one priority for the Blacktop Teams.  There are a number of specialist vehicles which are utilised on the runway and aircraft operating surfaces at Coningsby, many of which were new to the station for this season.  As with every new specialist vehicle, training has to be provided for MT personnel and the continual maintenance of the kit and serviceability checks are carried out weekly without fail to ensure the vehicles are always kept in a high state of readiness to maintain the Blacktop commitment.

Last winter was one of the busiest Blacktop seasons we have experienced for a while.  During the Christmas and New Year leave period, when the majority of personnel would have been at home with their families, the Blacktop Teams were on standby just in case they had to be called out.  Many of the team had to stay on station which meant they unfortunately did not have the chance to celebrate Christmas and New Year with their loved ones.

Personnel from ATC, ASMT and Ops attend a Met brief on a daily basis in order to determine what the Blacktop State will be for the forthcoming 24 hours of which there are 3 different Blacktop States: Blacktop State GREEN which everyone looks forward to meaning no snow or ice forecast in the next 24 hours; Blacktop State AMBER which can be followed with the words ‘Ice’ or ‘Snow’, meaning there is a risk of snow or ice for the night and the Blacktop Teams are on standby to be called in; lastly Blacktop State RED means snow is imminent or in the process of falling and the Blacktop Teams will be out on the runway clearing the snow.

Throughout the recent Blacktop season the LADS Sprayer was involved almost on a daily basis due to the wet and freezing weather. Personnel from ASMT sprayed the runway on a 6 hourly basis as this is the optimum time window in which Clearway 3 is effective.  This high level of activity ensured the serviceability of the runway for flying operations to continue, even in the worst conditions.  During the heaviest periods of snow the Blacktop Teams were operating for 24 hours, utilising day and night shifts.  OC Logs Sqn and the MTO even got to have ‘hands on’ experience on the runway with members of the Blacktop Team so they could see the full operational capabilities of the vehicles.

Constant liaison was required between Ops, ATC and ASMT Control staff to make sure the right areas were cleared and cleared in the right order.  These are known as Priority Areas and are decided based on the severity of the weather and the airfield commitments at the time.

Another important element is the support from MTMS who had a Duty Fitter on call throughout the period just in case anything went wrong with the vehicles.  As with every bit of kit there will be problems and without the timely assistance of MTMS, quickly assessing and fixing the problems, snow clearing operations would not have been maintained.

It has been an extremely busy Blacktop Season and its great success can be attributed to the significant effort and co-operation of all personnel involved.  So next time you are eating your Christmas dinner, celebrating New Year or sledging in the snow with the kids, please spare a thought for the personnel on Blacktop, who sacrifice their family Christmas keeping RAF Coningsby’s Airfield operational.