Driving Piles Next to Jets: Behind the Scenes at Logan International Airport

Building Pile Foundationsat Logan International Airport

Building Pile Foundationsat Logan International Airport

At Conte Company, we do construction work in all sorts of places, driving piles and building foundations for boardwalks, schools, houses, shopping malls, industrial plants and some other really cool sites. Once in a while we land a job that’s loaded with logistical obstacles which could easily lead to delays and complications.

We’re always up for a good challenge, and the trick is to make sure our customers are happy and relaxed from beginning to end. We do this with meticulous planning and foresight. Not only for the work that needs to get done, but to anticipate all those little things that can add up to big headaches if preparations and contingencies are not in place. We bend over backward for our clients!

When the Airport Authority is the Client

A traveler running to catch a flight will rarely have time to notice the complicated infrastructure of departure airports. But, if he did take a good look around, he might notice that the tarmacs, runways, hangers, passenger gates and terminals are in a perpetual state of upgrade or repair.

Recently, Conte Company was awarded a construction contract from Logan International Airport, a very busy hub just outside metropolitan Boston, MA. Logan covers 2,384 acres, has six runways and four passenger terminals. It employs an estimated 16,000 people and is the largest airport in the New England with 36 million total passengers passing through the terminals annually.

From a general contractor’s perspective, driving piles for this job might not seem particularly challenging. Conte was hired to simply install helical piles for an airport expansion; specifically to enlarge gated terminals and add a few new gangways, used for boarding passengers.

As it turned out, this job was extremely challenging from a logistical, and a customer service point of view. Why? Precisely because of where the job was located; at an international airport with reams of security and safety regulations! Not to mention the timing and precision requirements of an airport open for business 24/7, with activity both on the ground and in the air. It’s a busy place!

Security and Safety

Before we were even allowed to step foot onto the tarmac, each and every one of our crew had to clear thorough background checks and fingerprinting to satisfy Massport (The Massachusetts Port Authority) and MA State Troopers. Then we all had to go through a rigorous safety training program, anti-terrorism certification and a personal screening process just to be allowed to work on the premises. It took a full month before the certifications and checks were completed, and no work could begin until everyone had been cleared.

“Every time we entered the gates, everything had to be checked. Every toolbox had to be opened, engines, undercarriage, materials and people were scanned. Once inside, we could not leave the airport at will because we had to be searched each and every time. But, we are a company that enjoys a good challenge — and being flexible and adhering to our customer’s requirements is one of the things we do better than everyone else.”

Equipment Transport

When our guys were finally cleared to work, it was time for Conte Company to transport all of the necessary equipment for driving piles: trucks, trailers, excavators and pile materials onto the site. Imagine driving oddly shaped equipment out onto tarmacs while huge commercial jets are taxiing back and forth between gates and runways. Fortunately, as Conte Company specializes in helical pile technology, the transport was relatively seamless. Only small trucks were necessary to move all the installation equipment into place.

An unexpected problem did arise when Conte Company learned we would not be allowed to transport pre-mixed concrete to the site. The airport authority did not want concrete trucks coming in-and-out, or idling near the terminal, for security and logistical reasons. As a result, we had to mix all of the concrete on-site, by hand.

Work Space Limitations

On an airport tarmac, wing lines are drawn on the pavement to show where planes with various wing spans are allowed to taxi. As contractors, we could not place any equipment within these lines because it would block planes from taxiing to-and-from the gates to the runways. The very limited space between these wing lines is the only path allotted for all other types of tarmac traffic and construction equipment.

Again, as we were employing a helical pile system for the foundation of the terminal expansion, we only needed small installation equipment. We employed a 4-ton excavator, a 14-ton ex and a 15 ton rubber tire ex in order to meet certain access limitations for different parts of the project. Each of these have the ability to rotate within its own footprint without hitting or blocking any jets.

“We were working in such a tight space that the arm of our excavator could have swung around and hit the plane behind us! Needless to say, we were EXTREMELY careful… And no, we never hit anything.”

Working in such close quarters could have been catastrophic with larger equipment. If another piling method was used for the building foundations, the Airport Authority would have likely needed to shut down the nearby gates, creating delays for passengers around the world.

Safety of Passengers and Workers

Installing piles for the terminals, gates and gangways of a working airport means that people are everywhere! Imagine the responsibility of drilling very close to where passengers are boarding planes. But, because our team is trained to put the safety of people first, there was never a problem. The passengers barely noticed we were there and the Airport Authority was delighted with the seamless process.

The Soil Conditions

As geotechnical contractors, the soil conditions influencing this job were fascinating to us. Boston is a city basically built on marshland. To complicate things, Logan Airport itself, sits atop a man-made landfill and 15 feet of dense compacted gravel. Below that was anywhere from 60-140 feet of infamous Boston Clay. And below that was a layer very dense till… oh, and by the way, it’s all capped off by 2 feet of solid asphalt!

It was a serious challenge, to say the least. It was determined that we needed to drill our piles somewhere between 70-140 feet deep to assure stability and anchor into the till far below the asphalt. It was up to us to figure out how to do that.

The top 10-15 feet of the gravel was incredibly hard and much too dense for standard helical equipment to get through. Ultimately, we decided to pre-drill to break up the gravel which prevented the piles from buckling or breaking. Once we hit the clay the helical piles could screw in easily and take it from there. We built custom, reinforced digger-plates which we used to pull grout down through the gravel to encase the entire piles in a concrete column.

In the end, it all worked out nicely. We hit a couple obstructions and had to re-drill once or twice, but ultimately, the plan succeeded! At Conte Company, creativity runs deep and everything we customized for this project worked just as we designed it.

In case you’re curious about driving piles, we installed CHANCE® SS225 Helical Piles with 7″ grout shafts, load tested for 140 kips (or 70 tons).

Complicated logistics and damage control

As a contractor that specializes in foundation work, Conte Co always performs our work with precision. Even so, a minimum $10M insurance umbrella was mandatory to win the contract (obviously, it’s very expensive to repair a damaged jet).

With Conte’s helical pile technology, there is no pounding and little chance of debris shooting away and hitting planes, terminal windows, passengers or workers. Alternate methods of foundation work could have made a real mess of the surroundings and an injury hazard for the airport’s customers.

The Logan Airport job was completed in just a few weeks over the course of a full year. It was a great experience for us, and a successful install, because Conte Company knows how to plan for contingencies. And even when we don’t anticipate something strange, we bend over backwards to meet our clients’ needs.

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