Most of us have no idea. And why would we?
The Quad-City International Airport is similar in ways to a concert arena. There's the so-called front of the house, which is what the public sees. That's the main terminal and ticket counters, security, concourses and baggage claim.
Then there's the back of the house. And it's full of surprises.
A tunnel runs from the basement, all the way to the airfield. A seemingly mile-long catwalk hovers above the terminal. And a combination police/fire department contains elaborate emergency equipment that few know exists.
Our Off Limits Places tour took us behind the scenes — backstage, if you will — to the heights and depths of a complicated operation.
When airport marketing representative Cathie Rochau told me about the tunnel under the airport, I was afraid we'd be invited in.
Not a fan of enclosed spaces, it was a relief to learn we would not be permitted inside. In fact, there are few instances in which anyone is called upon to traverse the underground passage. At just five feet in diameter and more than 400 feet long, the tunnel serves a singular purpose.
"The primary purpose is to get power out to the airfield," said Mike Haney, who was longtime operations director, retiring in 2013. "It's a conduit for the power.
"The concrete tunnel protects the power line, so things like Atlanta is experiencing (with the recent power outage) do not happen."
It is so rarely accessed, the basement entrance to the tunnel is blocked with a piece of foam-board insulation, carved to fit.
The narrow walkways are striking for their length, appearing to go on forever.
The airport essentially is a one-story building. The former observation area, now home to TSA offices, is the exception. The catwalks are, basically, the airport's attic.
Above much of the terminal, including the ticket counters and garages behind them (We'll get to that), are two catwalks. Makeshift railings of two-by-fours flank the plywood paths. On either side, plumbing, electricity and HVAC components create a super highway of airport mechanicals.
"The catwalk is the junction point for all the service for electricity and communication," Haney said. "We didn't go through the floor. We do it all from above. The airport is only a single-floor-type structure. We were fortunate to have that empty space above."
Duct work is suspended from the ceiling, dropping through the floor to carry heat and air throughout the terminal. A maze of pipes shares the space, along with the power supply to the ceiling lights above the ticket counters directly below.
The catwalks smell like an attic, but have the look and feel of a long-stored spaceship.
An odd thing occurred to me as we entered the giant garage: Snow must cost the airport millions.
The sprawling airfield-maintenance garage contains 32 bays and 18 overhead doors. But it's the vehicle fleet that wows you.
Before I could launch into the multitude of obvious questions (What does THAT do?), Rochau turned my attention to two walls behind us.
"Recognize those?" she asked.
Of course; wind socks.
I had spotted one of the orange, tube-shaped wind direction/speed indicators as we drove across the airfield. But it looked nothing like the giant sheets of fabric that hung from the garage walls.
From a distance, the wind socks look about the length of a beach towel. Up close, they're much closer to a stage curtain.
"When I first started, it seemed like we stretched 'em out a little longer," said Bill Theofilis, airfield maintenance mechanic. "Now we replace them once a year."
The retired socks contain signatures and messages from the maintenance crew. We noted the nickname "Deano" on the 2008 sock became "Rama Lama Dean Dong" on the one dated 2010.
You can bet this never occurred to me: Earthworms, after a rain, can become an airport menace.
"If we get enough worms out there (on the airfield), they attract seagulls, so we go out and brush them off," said Brad Gantt, airfield maintenance supervisor.
But it's frozen rain that gets the most attention from airfield maintenance.
"It takes a lot of equipment to clear a runway that's 150 feet wide and 10,000 feet long — almost two miles," Haney said.
The winter-weather arsenal contains equipment that is both run-of-the-mill and specific to airfields. The Snow Readiness Equipment, SRE, is stored in the huge garage that has tripled in size since it first was built about 30 years ago. In the mid-90s, the center section was added. The third section, the same size as the first and second, was added about five years ago.
Against one wall, seven snow-plow blades were lined up in an impossibly neat row. Giant brooms also are available as plow attachments to remove FOD — Foreign Object Debris (like worms). There are graders and dozers and plow blades that are 18 feet wide. There's even a sprayer the size of a combine.
The sprayer is identical to the ones used by farmers to apply fertilizer to their fields. At the airport, though, it's used to apply chemical de-icer to the runway. In one lap, it can coat all the runway the planes need to safely land. If the operator drives it over the same place twice, the sprayer's GPS simply shuts off the chemical.
"The GPS knows exactly where we've been," Gantt said. "We also throw snow about 50 feet afield. The runway light fixtures are about $1,000 each, so our equipment is designed to keep anything from hitting the ground."
In a big storm, the airport puts a crew of 12 to 15 people on snow removal.
And get this: Sometimes, airplanes have to be jump-started. So, the crew hauls its Air Start Bottle to the plane. The machine produces high pressure, high volume air, which forces the aircraft blades to spin.
"It's the same as popping the clutch," Gantt said.
The luggage loop
You've no doubt noticed the door at the back of each of the airport ticket counters.
Tickets agents always are appearing or disappearing from those doors.
I'm not sure what I expected to find on the other side, but it wasn't a "lav cart."
The rooms behind the counters basically are garages. As you check your luggage, airline personnel send the bags into the garage. From there, they are loaded onto those funny-looking luggage cart/trains (called "TUG") and hauled to the baggage hold of aircraft.
The garages contain luggage trains that aren't in use, along with the blocks that are placed under airplane wheels to keep them from moving. The space is pretty typical garage space, containing various tools and machinery that's needed outside.
One machine caught my eye, and Rochau explained that it's called a "lav cart," which is short for lavatory.
The wheeled machine is transported to the airfield, where it collects waste from aircraft bathrooms. It reminded me of the waste stations you see at a campground or RV park. The cart has a holding tank and hose, which connects to the plane. I did not ask how the carts are emptied, because I find that too much information can ruin a perfectly good tour.
On to baggage claim
The cart/trains that carry luggage to the airplanes also carry luggage back to the terminal.
Funny story: When Rochau and I first went into the luggage receiving area, I headed straight for the overhead garage door to look out the window and get my bearings. When I got about a foot from the door, a sensor caused the garage door to open. Those doors open very quickly.
Caught off guard, I jumped back and clutched my chest, which was a typical reaction and no doubt a humorous one.
When photographer Jeff Cook joined us in the room, and Rochau started to warn him about the door, I pressed an index finger to my lips in a secretive request for silence.
Sure enough, Jeff walked up to the door and, to my admittedly shameful pleasure, the door flew open in front of him. Jeff's instinct also was to jump backward, which he did while clutching his camera to his chest. I just laughed all over again, recalling it. (Thanks/sorry, Jeff.)
Anyway, when the cart/train gets close to the door on the outside, the sensor detects it, too, and the doors open. The unloading room is small, and it's obvious from the marks on the walls that it is not easy to navigate.
The driver pulls in and stops alongside one of two conveyor belts that take up most of the garage space. Then, another worker shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, and helps load the luggage onto the conveyor. Within a matter of three minutes, the luggage disappears into openings in the wall, and the workers are gone.
The conveyors deliver the luggage to the carousels in the baggage-claim area, provided they do not get stuck in the ceiling area that is known for trapping bags.
The fire/police station
It's always cool when you go to a new place, and your mind instantly comes alive with excited questions.
I was not aware the airport's emergency services has its own dispatching center. Whether a flight crew asks for an ambulance to be standing by for a sick passenger, or someone tries to jump the airfield fence, dispatch gets emergency personnel moving.
And what a group.
"Our staff is cross-trained," said Chief Jeff Patterson, who previously worked for the Illinois State Police. "Part of the shift they're police officers, and part of the shift they're firefighters.
"In a crash, everyone becomes a firefighter."
I let that sink in for a minute. The two uniformed cops we saw inside the terminal could, if needed, switch into firefighting gear and take on a whole different role.
Also impressive is the equipment the team is expert at using.
The airport has two "Strikers," which are fire trucks made especially for responding to airplane crises or crashes. Each one holds 3,000 gallons of water and 500 pounds of dry chemical.
"These are designed to get very close to something very hot," said Lloyd Murphy, a public service officer who also worked for the state police. "They're designed to go off-road."
A couple of things about the Strikers give it a military look. First, the trucks have so much steel reinforcement to tolerate the heat of a fire, they look like tanks. Plus, each has two turrets mounted on them, which can blast 1,000 gallons of water per minute.
The Strikers can accommodate three public safety officers, but they are designed to be operated by one person for efficiency's sake. The vehicles are driven from the center of the cab, so the operator can get a good look at either side of the vehicle.
"When we hear the crash-alert tone, we must respond within three minutes," Murphy said. "Our first responsibility is to rescue passengers."
Fascinating factoid: Just about anything that is not routine is regarded as a crash. If an airplane overshoots the runway by so much as an inch, it's a crash. If the cabin of a plane gives off the slightest whiff of something hot, you can bet the public service officers will be waiting when the airplane lands.
They will be seated in their Strikers, where air packs are built into the seats. If smoke is visible, but the source of the fire is unclear, they engage the heat sensor on the Strikers, which can locate a hot spot on an aircraft almost instantly.
Technology is assisted by training in keeping Quad-City Airport passengers safe, especially in a crisis.
Though we cannot disclose the number of public safety officers employed by the airport, each and every one is required to be involved in fighting a fire at least once a year.
Every officer attends a live-burn event annually, which is required by the FAA. Public safety officers from Moline go to Chicago's O’Hare Airport for their training.
Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org