WATCH: Behind the Scenes – Airport Runways Need Sand, Not Salt

After summer upgrades, PIT’s sand dome keeps 1,000 tons ready for winter

By Julie Bercik

Published November 29, 2021

Read Time: 2 mins


When the salt trucks hit the road in Western Pennsylvania, you know winter weather has arrived.

But when it comes to treating another kind of pavement—the runways at Pittsburgh International Airport—it’s all about sand.

“We apply sand to the airfield for traction for ice and snow control in the winter,” said Jim Moorhead, Director, Airport Operations. “Salt causes too much damage to the aircraft, the aircraft engines and the parts with aircraft, so it’s not permitted on any airfield.”

PIT’s sand dome, located on the east side of the airfield, stores more than 1,000 tons of sand for use during the winter. In July, when it was hot and sticky, crews at PIT already had winter weather on their minds and began an extensive upgrade of the sand dome.

It was a three-part job for the electric shop at PIT: improve the lighting, install an exhaust fan and repair the heating system.

Before electricians could start the project, much of the sand had to be taken out of the dome to make room for heavy equipment, including a spider-like lift that allowed electrician Chris Unger to start installing new LED lights near the top of the dome, which is about three stories high.

The lights are more efficient and will save money, said Electric Shop Supervisor Mark Lane.

Installing an exhaust fan keeps the air inside the dome circulating.

“Once the machines come in here and start loading the sand, this becomes very dusty in here,” Unger said.

Better heating keeps the sand warm and dry before it goes on the airfield, a requirement from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s a very fine sand,” said Moorhead. “When you go out to apply it, you don’t want it to clump up on the machines.”

When the three-part upgrade on the dome was completed, the sand was brought back in, one load at a time. From now on, anytime sand leaves the dome, it’s heading straight for the airfield.

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