MSP Airport's friction tester key in keeping runways safe

December 09, 2018 10:27 PM

The next time you take off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, know this: A special vehicle has been traveling up and down the runways making sure they are safe.

It's especially important in these winter months.


When the runway to the skies gets slick, MSP pulls out its first line of defense in keeping runways safe – the XC70 Volvo friction tester.

"It's specialized, it's got a fifth wheel that gathers friction on the runway,” Bob Johnson with the Metropolitan Airports Commission said.

Johnson works airside operations at MSP and the five-wheeled wagon reads runways.

"Extremely valuable. Extremely valuable,” he said.

To test the friction, Johnson sets up the car on a closed runway.

"I’ve got my runway selected, now I hit down and that will drop the fifth wheel. The measuring wheel,” he said. “Now I accelerate to 40 miles an hour … You can see it’s collecting data.”

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MSP has been using these since 1991. The system is made in Sweden, which is why they use Saabs and Volvos. The airport said this is an important tool to make sure they can take off and land here.

"What we are looking for is snow and ice,” Jeff Mattson said.

“This determines if we are going to be opened or closed.”

Mattson is duty manager for airside operations. He said the wheel lowers down from a compartment and measures the friction of the runway.

"The key to us is to get the friction as high as possible,” he said.

They take the reading from the car's friction tester and it ends up on a large monitor, with a line representing the length of the runway.

In bad weather they can run a lot - sometimes 10 times a day per runway, of which there are four at MSP.

"Safety is paramount and this is a tool that we can use to help keep our runways safely open before closing it for snow removal,” Johnson said.

The airport uses this tool in the summer, too. It detects the rubber residue on the runway when the temperatures are up.

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Paul Folger

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