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Quality Asphalt Paving Upgrades the Main Runway at the Anchorage International Airport

by: Larry Trojak
Alaska's largest city is currently witnessing a case of new technology clearing the way for the future. At Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (TSAIA), Quality Asphalt Paving (QAP, a subsidiary of the Colaska Group), is performing a major overhaul of the primary north/south runway to accommodate today’s bigger, heavier cargo aircraft. To help make that happen, the Anchorage-based company has assembled a fleet of heavy equipment, most of it employing GNSS-based technology. Facing only a six-month window to finish work on the nearly 2-mile long runway, shoulders and adjacent taxiways, QAP is getting outstanding results in earthmoving, milling and paving, and anticipates easily beating the deadline for completion.
Cargo is Key
While TSAIA handles its share of passenger traffic – more than 5 million people annually – the airport’s real strength is as a key hub for cargo traffic. Strategically located between the world’s two largest economies, China and the U.S. (which also happen to be the two largest e-commerce markets), TSAIA ranks fifth in the world in air cargo, growing by 2.52 percent to 2.79 million metric tons in 2018 alone. According to Martin Meenaghan, QAP’s Project Engineer, the stream of cargo-laden jumbo jets into and out of the facility on any given day is virtually non-stop.

“This airport sees some of the largest aircraft flying today, including “The Dreamlifter,” which Boeing uses to transport entire wings of commercial aircraft,” he said. “We are bringing the runway up to new FAA specs designed to better handle these – and larger – aircraft as the airport moves forward. Obviously they have a very decent niche with all this cargo traffic and I’m sure they want to maintain that position; this will help them do that. We are contracted to widen the structural section of the runway. So, while the footprint of the runway will remain essentially the same, the weight-bearing section of it will be widened by some 65 feet.”

Upgrade work at TSAIA started in 2018 when QAP did a small 1500’ section of runway to gain familiarity with the technique they would use for milling the entire structure: Topcon Millimeter GPS. However, work began in earnest on April 1 with the shutdown of runway 15/33, and the diversion of all traffic to the east-west runway 07/25 at the southern end of the airport.

Flights to Lights
QAP’s work at TSAIA ran the gamut from preliminary earthmoving to milling to paving to prep for landing light installation. To help them handle each facet in the most efficient way possible, the company called upon Mike Williams, Co-Owner of Anchorage-based GPS Alaska to discuss equipment and control solution options available to them. Doing so was not just the proverbial “shot in the dark.” For several years now, their parent company, Colaska, has been one of Topcon’s strategic partners.

“We enjoy a great relationship with Colaska and worked hard to win them over,” said Williams. “They’d been using GPS gear from another manufacturer and we knew they could benefit from what Topcon had to offer. We sat down with Joe Webb, Robb Dunn and Mike Fizette and showed them all that was available, finally doing a ‘Fly and Try’ into Topcon’s Livermore, California test center. There, each potential user got a chance to see and test the technology that could improve their effort. Today, thanks to their commitment, they are one of our best proponents of GNSS solutions, and it showed out at the airport.”

The lineup QAP brought to bear at TSAIA was impressive indeed. It included:

  • Three dozers: a John Deere 850, a Caterpillar D6N with 3D-MC MAX, and a Caterpillar D6T with 3D-MC2 machine control
  • A Caterpillar 16M Motor Grader running twin 3D-MC
  • A Komatsu 1200 Excavator with X-53i indicate-only GPS
  • A Wirtgen W2501 Milling Machine with dual Millimeter GPS
  • Two Caterpillar F Series pavers
  • A pair of Caterpillar CB-68B Rollers
  • A Dynapac 700 Roller with Topcon C-53 IC Intelligent Compaction
  • Four Topcon FC-5000 data collectors 
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“This was an outstanding opportunity for QAP – and Colaska – to truly see what a full range of GNSS solutions could do for them – and they were not disappointed,” said Williams.

In the Trenches
Excavation work on the 11,470-foot-long, 200-foot-wide runway included digging a full-length trench on either side of the runway and filling each trench with gravel to provide the additional structural stability. Work in this area also included new piping systems for drainage. Runway Safety Areas (RSAs), which extend off the pavement, were excavated at 2 feet deep, 110 feet wide the entire length of the runway. According to Meenaghan, having machine control at work made a significant impact.

The machine control solution is working really well for us,” he said. “With everyone working off the same a model, things are roughed in quickly – it’s all very efficient. We were out here for seven weeks and had the bulk of the earthwork knocked out. It turned into a paving show much sooner than we ever anticipated. Granted, there are always weather days that we always have to anticipate up here, but it’s nice to get a bit of breathing room so early on.”

Having that level of efficiency in all phases of the project was not just a luxury. While there is no incentive built into QAP’s contract for finishing the TSAIA project early, there is certainly a penalty – $18,000 per day between two phases – for delays beyond the contracted end date.

“For us, the incentive to finish early is this: we’re done, we’re under budget, we did a good job and the customer is satisfied,” said Meenaghan.

Millimeter Milling
While QAP has done its fair share of airport work in the past, the tight milling specs – within .02 – still made the Anchorage job something of a challenge. For that reason and others, they opted for the Millimeter GPS solution and found it to be the answer they needed, according to Thomas Davis, QAP’s Grinding and Reclaiming Foreman.

“From my perspective, the biggest benefit the Millimeter GPS provided was an amazingly accurate way to deal with the grade breaks,” he said. “Out here, the grade off centerline was consistent: for 25 feet on either side it was 1.5 percent. But in the areas where the runway crossed the taxiways, not only did it vary, it was also vague in the plans and needed to be calculated. But when we built the model, all that data was in there. That was huge – without it, we would have been chasing cross slopes throughout each taxiway.”

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He added that, despite the time it took to ready the system each day (calibrations, setting up transmitters, etc.), they were still far ahead of the game in milling.

“Once we were off and running it was great to see the GPS take over,” he said. “In a sense, it took my job from me. However, it did free me up to do other things and to follow behind with a data collector for periodic grade checks. I think it was a great setup for what needed to be accomplished out here and the results speak for themselves.”

A Story in Volumes
To get a better handle on the size of the project ongoing at TSAIA, one need look no further than the volumes of material involved in the various phases. By project’s end, QAP will have placed and compacted roughly 150,000 tons of asphalt, laid down a half million tons of gravel, and moved a half-million cubic yards of earth during excavation. According to Meenaghan, though they’ve become much more GNSS savvy the last couple years, the help provided by GPS Alaska on the airport job was invaluable.

“Mike Williams and his team have been great – they’re our go-to guys out here for sure,” he said. “They are very knowledgeable of the solutions they provide and always make themselves available – a company like ours can’t ask for better than that. There’s a lot out here that simply couldn’t have happened without them.”

IC Said the Wise Man
In anticipation of things to come, QAP also opted to employ intelligent compaction (IC) during the paving facet of the job. Already close to being a prerequisite to bid DOT projects in a number of states, IC provides real-time feedback for the number of passes, temperature and stiffness. Doing so ensures the operator compacts when, where and only as much as needed. One of the company’s roller operators, Robert Hoadley, said that, while IC can help management remotely monitor the machines and identify issues before they become a concern, he also finds the technology helpful.

“I think this is a really good system,” he said. “It shows me on-screen how many passes I’ve made as well as my densities – it even has a sensor that tells me what the temperature of the asphalt is. Without IC, none of that is available and operators have to count the number of passes made. Here, I can program each pass to be a different color and quickly identify an area that is at risk of over or under-compaction.”

QAP’s completion date for work at TSAIA, while technically September 30th, includes two weeks during which the FAA has scheduled flight testing to begin mid-month.

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“So, we are looking at substantial completion mid-September, final completion at the end of the month,” said Meenaghan. “But thus far, this has been a great job and we are very satisfied with the way things have gone. All the GPS equipment we had on site saved us either time or manpower. And milling with the Topcon Millimeter GPS system proved to be a good move; production exceeded what we had built in for the job. We’re definitely pleased with where we’re at.”

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