At 11:15 a.m. Friday at the Hays Regional Airport, Christina Anderson, Phillipsburg, had been waiting more than four hours to board her SkyWest Airlines flight to Denver.
A wintry mix of dry pelting snow had moved in about 6:30 a.m., just ahead of the 7 a.m. flight, which SkyWest flies every weekday on behalf of United Airlines.
Anderson, her 4-month-old baby, Hamish, and 45 other passengers were waiting inside the airport terminal in a glassed-in waiting room, where they had been sitting for several hours, looking at their United Express plane sitting idle on the tarmac.
The commercial jet, which had flown in from Salina, was delayed by Friday morning’s 15-degree temperatures, not counting the wind chill, and flurries of hard icy snow pellets that deposited a quarter-inch of white stuff on the ground in Hays.
Even so, despite the wintry mix, the city-owned and operated Hays Regional Airport was open for business.
By 9 a.m., senior maintenance worker Rick Hines with the Department of Public Works, had applied urea de-icing pellets to the runway to melt the thin glaze of ice. Hines doesn’t use salt as is done on city streets because it would corrode aircraft. And by 11 a.m. Hines had already swept the runway two times with a rotary tractor, said Ovid Seifers, airport manager.
The 6,500 foot runway is 100 feet wide, about 650,000 square feet. “That’s a lot of acres,” said Seifers, but Hines can deposit the urea over it in about 25 minutes.
While the big jet waited, smaller aircraft were having an easier go of it. At 8:30 a.m., a Hawker de Havilland twin-engine plane had flown in, dropped off a passenger, and flown out.
“He came and went without incident,” Seifers said.
Around 11:30 a.m., a Piper Cheyenne turboprop cruised onto the runway and taxied to the terminal, guided in by Chisholm Drew, one of the line crew at the airport.
The Piper carried three passengers and pilot Mike Deweese, Murfreesboro, Tenn., all on their way to Steamboat Springs, Colo.
“No problem,” Deweese said of flying into the airport. “That runway is actually in real good shape. Really the clouds are the worst of it.”
One passenger, also a pilot and also from Murfreesboro, Shelby Hunton, said the landing was easy, “with no problems at all.”
Inside the warmth of the terminal, Deweese instructed Drew on fueling the plane. “I need to top off,” he said, before getting the keys to a courtesy car, then asking where the four could find a good ‘burger for lunch.
Meanwhile outside the waiting room, Walt Hill, Hays, executive director of High Plains Mental Health, was throwing in the towel.
One of the passengers scheduled to fly out on SkyWest at 6:25 a.m., Hill was supposed to have connected with an 11 a.m. flight out of Denver to Tampa, Fla. to attend a national mental health conference.
By 10:45 a.m. he’d rebooked to leave Hays on the next day’s Saturday morning flight.
“It’s nice I can just go home and come back tomorrow,” he said, indicating no hard feelings. “Stuff happens.”
“It had just started snowing when we got here,” said Hill. “It looked like on the radar it just dumped right here on Hays.”
Like other SkyWest passengers, Hill had spent several hours in the waiting room, where he visited with a half-dozen people he knew, and many that he didn’t. Amongst the crowd waiting was a couple heading to Maui for their honeymoon, a handful of Hays business people, and several travelers headed separately to Saturday weddings in California.
“I just can’t say enough about how good the SkyWest people have been,” Hill said. “They even brought us coffee.”
SkyWest’s Bombardier CRJ 200 jet has 50 seats, and Friday morning’s flight was booked full, with 47 passengers, Seifers said.
How many were trying to make connections?
“Everybody,” said Rebecca, a SkyWest employee behind the counter. “We’ve been busy rebooking.”
Meanwhile, Christina Anderson’s mom, Phyllis Saries, Klamath Falls, Ore., was keeping little baby Hamish occupied with funny faces and giggles.
“She came out here to meet her grandson for the very first time,” Anderson said. “Now we’re flying back with her.”
Hamish’s mood had been up and down during the hours-long wait, Anderson said, but pretty good for the most part.
“I had four diapers when I got here,” she said. “I have one diaper left.”
Thankfully, keeping him fed wasn’t going to be a problem.
“He’s good,” she laughed, “all his food comes from me, so we have plenty.”
Around noon, the SkyWest crew gave the all-clear for passengers to board the CRJ. Getting the door closed wasn’t the smooth operation it normally is. But 10 minutes of scraping by line man Remus Griffith freed the hinge and got the door shut.
For another hour, the plane full of passengers waited on the runway, as SkyWest’s Griffith and Luke Longren, operated a boom to de-ice the plane with orange and green foam.
“That fluid comes out at 160 degrees,” said Seifers. “That stuff only has a little bit of life, depending on how much snow there is. If you de-ice too early before take-off, you have to go back and do it again.”
Meantime, a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan belonging to charter air cargo provider Planemasters Ltd. radioed it was coming in. Like clockwork, the Caravan always arrives Monday through Friday at Hays Regional Airport, delivering United Parcel Service packages.
“He’s way late today,” said Seifers. “He’s normally here by 7 or 8, but he was delayed by freezing ice in Wichita.”
Flying into the wind, the Caravan made an easy landing.
Watching the landing, Seifers explained that frozen precipitation is the enemy of flight, made possible by wings that are round on top and flat on the bottom, so airflow lifts the plane.
“Ice will take you out of the air. Why? Because it disrupts the airflow enough, and you lose some of your lift,” he said. “Your whole life is on the wing. The wing is everything.”
The CRJ’s de-icing took a good half hour.
“They are de-icing all the surfaces there so it’s free of all frozen precip,” Seifers explained. “Frozen precip disrupts the airflow over the wings, therefore it disrupts lift, therefore if it disrupts enough lift the aircraft actually loses lift and will come back down to the ground on take-off.”
Shortly before 1 p.m., the CRJ’s de-icing was complete and the jet taxied to the end of the runway.
Roaring down Runway 34-16, the SkyWest flight was now wheels up at 1:06 p.m.
“See, you saw very little snow or dust come up there,” said Seifers, observing the take-off from an airport vehicle parked at the Mike 3 location sign, a little south of the runway's midpoint.
“They could have went, in our opinion, by 9 a.m.,” Seifers said. “There’s no reason for a 1 p.m. departure, but it’s not our call.”