Crews that clear snow and ice at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport have the right stuff.The 90 or so men and women of the Field Maintenance, Operations and Safety Division can boast that the airport has never been closed because of snow or ice."We’ve had a couple of close calls, but no one can remember when the airport last closed because of snow,’’ said Corky Caldwell, the airport’s aviation operations manager.Caldwell, a former U.S. Navy jet pilot, likened the airport’s snow removal crews to the very best aviators in the service, the "Top Guns."Their attitudes and professionalism are interchangeable, Caldwell said."We have very highly qualified people and great equipment operators,’’ Caldwell said.Anchorage International in 1998 and 1999 won the Balchen/Post Award for excellence in snow and ice control, and once won runner-up in the large airport division.The award, named for famed aviators Col. Bernt Balchen and Wiley Post, is sort of the Pulitzer Prize for snowplow operators.Caldwell said the Anchorage airport, which experienced a relatively mild winter last year, did not nominate itself for the award in 2000 because many Lower 48 airports suffered from more severe snowstorms."We felt sorry for them,’’ Caldwell said.Morale is high and turnover low for the snow crews, equipment mechanics and operations staff, all of whom are dedicated to keeping the airport open in the harshest winter weather. And they vow to keep the no-closure-from-snow record alive, said Dan Hartman, the airport’s manager of airfield maintenance.The Anchorage airport averages almost 70 inches of snow from October through April, with December having the highest snowfall of about 15 inches annually.But snow is just one of the factors crews must face, as freezing rain and frost from icy fog contribute to a slick tarmac. Then there are the freeze-thaw-freeze conditions amplified by the airport being surrounded on two sides by the relatively warm waters of Cook Inlet.In all, airport crews have to clear snow from nearly 25 million square feet of asphalt, everything from runways and taxiways to parking lots, and even a few sidewalks."Basically, it’s anything not covered by a building,’’ Hartman said of the snow crew’s responsibility.The airport’s three runways, however, are the priority.Runway surfaces are monitored for moisture and slickness by computerized sensors. Snow crews also are in close contact with the weather service, Hartman said.When snow or ice first accumulate, an armada of equipment blitzes down a runway at nearly 30 mph. Four plow trucks with 19-foot-wide blades, towing high-speed brooms and snowblowers can clear a runway that’s more than 2 miles long and 150 feet wide in about 15 minutes, Hartman said.The plow trucks are usually followed by a fleet of graders, loaders, dump trucks and sanders.Each year, the airport uses about 5,000 tons of sand, 1,750 tons of a special snow-melting substance called urea, and 100,000 gallons of de-icer, Hartman said.Getting the right combination of sand and chemicals comes with much experience, Hartman said."The art is what to use and when to use it,’’ he added.Driving snow removal equipment isn’t easy, and crews are subjected to annual training and dry runs before the first snow fall. Familiarity with the tarmac is important when the airport encounters white-out conditions, Hartman said.Some employees have been pushing snow at the airport since the 1970s."It takes one to two years for them to be comfortable out there on the line and about seven years before someone can lead a pack of plows,’’ Hartman said.In the summer months, crews maintain equipment, patch cracks and potholes on the tarmac, paint centerlines, remove airplane tire rubber from runways and maintain 37 million square feet of grass, Hartman said.Sixteen mechanics keep the more than 300 pieces of snow removal equipment in shape and often modify equipment to meet the demands of Alaska weather, Hartman said.Recently, mechanics and machinists fabricated a special metal coupling to a snow-sweeping machine that had been suffering from severe vibration problems, Hartman said. The mechanics shared their solution with the machine’s manufacturer and now copies of the couplings are coming out on the machines as standard equipment."The mechanics play a major role in our ability to keep the airport open,’’ Hartman said.In addition to the mechanics, the snow-removal crew consists of 54 equipment operators, 10 electricians, three administration personnel and two people who order parts for the machines. There also are nine equipment operators who are on call.Personnel costs account for about $5 million of the department’s approximate $10 million annual budget, which is funded through landing and fuel fees from the airlines."We’re a state agency, but we’re customer oriented,’’ Hartman said. "The airlines are our customers and we do whatever we can to keep the airlines here and we go out of our way to keep them happy.’’Hartman has big plans for increased efficiency at the airport, including bigger snowplows to speed up removal time. The crews also hope to have a new 74,000-square-foot building in a few years to house offices, equipment and sand.Meanwhile, crews will continue to keep the airport open with what they’ve got, Hartman said."If anybody wants to come to Anchorage, they’ll have a place to land,’’ Hartman said.