Odd job: Employees blast rubber from TIA runways

- Airliners leave their mark, quite literally, and it’s someone’s job to erase the rubber skid marks from Tampa International Airport's runways.

Nearly every time a jet touches down, its rubber tires screech a bit and leave a small strip of rubber on the pavement below. If you look carefully at the ends of a runway, you are likely to see broad strips of rubber.

Charles Allen’s task is to remove it in the name of safety.

"The rubber builds up, it accumulates and it can cause friction issues on the runway," said Allen, the airfield maintenance supervisor at Tampa International Airport.

Every six months, Allen embarks on an overnight safety mission: to scrub the runways and rid them of excess rubber.

One Sunday night, FOX 13 joined Allen on the tarmac. At midnight, with all the day’s flights neatly parked at their gates, the sprawling airport fell surprisingly quiet. Until the pressure washer arrived, that is.

Allen hired a specialized truck that roared to life – growling nearly as loud as a jet engine.

Its hydrodynamic power was deceiving. The converted Ford crawled down runway 36R, moving at a pace slower than a walk.

The water shooting onto the concrete and blasting away the rubber was a nothing short of a marvel.

"He's currently running at 28,000 PSI," Allen explained.

That incredible pressure was focused on a blade just two feet wide, Allen said.

Over several nights, the truck would painstakingly blast an area equivalent to five football fields.

Allen, who seemed perplexed by our curiosity, said the unusual operation is routine part of standard operating procedure.

“It’s like clockwork,” he said. “Every six months.”

The process of removing the rubber pulverizes it. Afterward, it’s a pungent black powder. Allen said it is piled in a corner of the airport and ultimately recycled.

Following the final night of pressure washing, a state inspector arrives to verify the crucial clean-up.

The sun is still rising when Engineer Tyler Adkins hops into a pickup, closes the doors, and drives down the runway on cruise control.

“We run at 40 miles an hour," he explained. As he does, a fifth tire drops from beneath the bed. Water shoots from a small hose so a sensor in the wheel can measure the friction (and whether an airliner would skid in the rain).

Adkins monitors the readings from a laptop computer. After several passes, the test is complete. 

"The red line right here is the base," he notes. "The friction looks real good on the runway.”

Allen is pleased – though not surprised.

However, this unusual operation might surprise air travelers, but it’s just part of the routine for a veteran like Allen.

The airport said rubber removal costs $10,000 and is covered by fees that are collected by from franchisees - which collect those funds from customers.

"You park in our parking facility, you buy a cup of coffee, you're paying for rubber removal at the airport," said airport spokeswoman Christine Osborn. 

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