Cape Town International after dark

The Elves and the Shoemaker.

That was the first thought that popped to mind as I stood on the runway - yes the actual runway where aircraft take off - at Cape Town International Airport in the midnightly hours and watched the industrious procession of trucks, mixers and weird machines pass by.

Moments before, our motley crew of journalists, engineers, project managers and ACSA officials - all sporting lemon curd yellow reflective gear - had huddled together just beyond the friction course and watched the last flight of the evening back out of its parking bay, taxi along the runway and come to a tentative standstill. Close by a radio crackled to life, allowing us to eavesdrop on the KLM pilot's concerned complaint: "A bright light is shining toward the runway. Can you please locate it and turn it off." 

After a bit of confused to-an-froing between the pilot and air traffic control, we finally realised that the offending beam was, in fact, among us - a hand-held spotlight meant to illuminate the midnightly work we had come to witness. It was quickly switched off, and seconds later the powder blue aircraft with the crown on its tail sped up into a deafening take-off. 

I had seen similar scenes played out countless times before, however, being close enough to practically feel the jet blast, and smell the rubbery friction of wheels on tarmac was certainly a first.

You don't realise the vastness of a runway till you're standing right on it.

There was a collective gasp and somewhere someone said "It never ceases to amaze me. That those things actually manage to leave the ground."

As the red lights blinked off into the inky night sky, the runway was momentarily deserted... and then suddenly not anymore.

Within seconds, a swarm of vehicles had taken up their position, and like a well-oiled machine the night's work began: asphalt cutters wielding their diamond-edged blades to chop away the old runway, trucks ready to receive the debris that will later be recycled for the reconstruction of the shoulders and finally, mixers with fresh, warm asphalt swoop in and lay a new layer of airstrip.

R170m runway upgrade in the making

This has been the nightly routine at Cape Town International Airport since their Runway Rehabilitation Project kicked off in September last year.

The aim? To upgrade the 3.2km long, 60m wide runway and extend the current 4.5m shoulder on either side to 7.5m.

The cost? Approximately R170m, with about R120m going to civil works, R28m into electrical, R7.5m into escalation and R19.5m to consultant fees. 

According to airport manager, Deon Cloete, runway rehabilitation takes place every five years to ensure compliance to the Civil Aviation Authority's quality and safety standards, and at the same time provides the perfect opportunity to address wear and tear associated with normal runway usage. 

However, having to rehabilitate the main runway of a fully functional airport is most certainly much easier said than done. 

Headed up by South African-based Dutch engineering company Royal HaskoningDHV, the project schedule is divided into six-hour shifts, six nights a week. "An on-site kick-off meeting takes place at 23:00 every night and when the runway officially closes at 00:00, the physical work starts and keeps going till 06:00," Cloete explained. 

Taken at round 01:00, this rough surface will be smoothed over by 06:00, in time to accommodate the first morning flight.

By the time the first flight of the morning is ready for take-off, all evidence of the night's industriousness has disappeared. However, close inspection would reveal that, slowly but surely, a smoother runway is in the making. 

Project manager Bharat Bhikha explained that the project comprises five main components that will be completed in three different phases: 

- Runway and taxiway rehabilitation
- Construction and friction layer
- Strengthening and leveling the runway, graded strips and runway end safety areas (RESAs)
- Geometric improvement of the runway 
- Electrical works 

The first phase, which covered about 1km of the runway, was completed in December 2012 and the second, covering the rest of the 3.2km strip, is expected to be completed by the end of May. Phase three - comprising the installation of centre line lights across the runway intersection with the secondary runway - runs concurrently with phase two and is at 50% completion. The conclusion of this phase will herald the final handover, expected to take place on 28 June. 

The complex process of cutting away the old asphalt in preperation for a new, smoother layer. And to think, by morning, all these vehicles have disappeared, leaving the airport to conduct business as usual.

Some of the main repairs and rehabilitation include:

- An increase of the transverse slope (the slope across the runway surface) is being increased from the current compliant grade of 1% to 1.2%, which will aid faster run-off of rainwater from the runway surface.

- A new ultra thin friction course is being applied across the entire surface to increase skid resistance to vehicles operating on it.

- Runway shoulders are being extended from 4.5m to 7.5m, using reclaimed milled material from the existing runway surface (waste not want not, as they say), to aid in mitigating the risk of larger aircraft engines possibly ingesting stones and plant material from the current shoulders.

- The graded strips will be strengthened by the digging up and removal of 600mm of existing soil, compacting of insitu material and the importation of new gravel to further compact the required strength levels. A 100mm layer of topsoil with grassing will finish off the graded strips to mitigate soil erosion from jet blast and weather.

An integrated environmental management plan ensures that the environmental aspects of the project are managed carefully. An example of this is the continued growth of the local "kweekgras" species. 


Apart from the limited time available for work to be completed in each shift, Cloete added that bad weather presents another big challenge. When it's cold, windy or rains, the asphalt does not bond properly with the layer underneath. However, they are hoping to complete the asphalt work before winter rains are expected to start at the end of April. 

"The runway is the life-blood of the airport, therefore it has to be in a ‘healthy' condition at all times. The success of this complex project requires the co-operation of numerous parties and stakeholders directly and indirectly affected by the runway. The good working relationships between the parties at Cape Town International Airport will ensure that it is completed successfully," Cloete concluded.

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