If you’ve ever been to an airport, you’ve probably seen the thick, painted lines that guide pilots to safety on the runway.
Most of us don’t give much thought to how those lines get there, but the process is a lot more complicated than you might think — and it requires about 500 gallons of paint per night.
How is the catwalk painted and who takes care of it?
They call themselves “the striping crew.”
The 12-person team is responsible for the painstaking work of painting the lines on the runway inch by inch.
The striping crew at Miami International Airport gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how they prepare the runway at 1 a.m. every day
12 people, 500 gallons of paint
The stakes are always high for the patrol crew as the Federal Aviation Administration conducts its routine inspections.
“We will be painting the centerline of the runway tonight,” Supervisor Frank Martínez said as the crew prepared for the 1:39 a.m. inspection. “We will prepare by painting around the runway lights first.”
The 12-person crew uses nearly 500 gallons of paint each night to create bold lines on the runway.
To keep the lines straight, Martínez says the paint carts are guided by a string that someone pulls. He says the precision of their painting is primarily a safety risk.
“It’s for the pilots,” he says. “It helps them land the planes. It helps them push the planes away from the runway and towards the terminal.”
The special ingredient
To make the lines visible from the air, the striping team doesn’t just use paint.
The lines they paint not only need to be bold and thick, but also reflective so that they are visible from the sky – especially at night.
To do this, they use a special ingredient that makes their lines shine: glass.
“Behind the paint gun there is another gun that shoots the glass beads,” says Martínez.
Martínez says the glass is like powder, which makes it stick to the paint.
Cleaning up is key
Martínez and his team wouldn’t be able to draw such perfect lines if the asphalt was dirty.
A whole new crew is brought in for this task and works tirelessly around the clock to ensure the runway is clear of debris.
“I oversee airfield operations,” says Michelle Cardona.
Cardona ensures that the team heeds all warnings, such as when a pilot encounters mechanical problems or requests assistance during landing.
“We patrol constantly,” she says. “Collecting FOD, i.e. foreign body residue or garbage – garbage.”
Cardona says this is done to ensure nothing comes out that can damage an aircraft.
If a plan includes FOD, it can cause damage to the engine that could cost millions of dollars to repair.
How does the team collect this debris? Most often with the help of a machine that works like a giant vacuum cleaner.
“It accommodates anything and everything,” says auto outfitter Terrance Williams. “You lower the pickup head and whatever is on the floor gets sucked up.”
Williams says it can hold almost anything, depending on the weight.
What happens when the runway is active?
“We go to the runways as needed,” says Cardona.
Once the day begins, the crew will not enter the runway unless instructed to do so by the FAA tower.
“If something needs to be done on the runway, they close the runway, call us out, we sweep it and that’s it,” Williams says.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t close calls.
“I was getting out of the way of a plane and the nose of his plane hit the nose of my truck,” Williams said. “But nothing happened, nothing serious or anything. I just avoided him.”
Although all of these tasks are separate, they work in unison with one control tower to operate one of the country’s busiest airports, which received over 26 million travelers in the first half of 2023.
But even though the work is tiring and usually goes unnoticed, these employees seem to have a positive attitude.
“I just thank Miami-Dade County for giving me the opportunity to be one of their employees,” Williams said. “And as the Miami-Dade County model says – to deliver excellent service every day.”