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Manitowoc crawler cranes assist Pittsburgh airport transformation project

Two MLC300 crawlers with VPC-MAX™ are essential to the construction of Pittsburgh’s $1.4 billion new terminal, scheduled to open in 2025. The crawlers are part of a package of cranes rented from Maxim Crane Works, which also provided lift planning support to general contractor PJ Dick/Hunt. The terminal is being built to LEED Silver standards, with a focus on public health and technology to meet the expectations of today’s travelers.



Pittsburgh International Airport’s $1.4 billion terminal modernization project is the first post-pandemic construction of its kind and will rewrite the future of mass transit. The terminal’s open-air design with ample green space offers aesthetic appeal to today’s travelers while reducing the time from curb to gate.


To bring this ambitious plan from vision to reality while working inside the existing airport’s active air space takes an expert team of people and equipment. That includes two 380-ton Manitowoc MLC300 crawler cranes with VPC-MAX™ leased from Maxim Crane Works to joint venture contractor PJ Dick | Hunt.


Pittsburgh’s airport serves more than 8 million passengers annually. The new 811,000-square-foot terminal will consolidate check-in, ticketing, security, and baggage while offering more open space for social distancing. By eliminating automated people mover trams and an eight-mile baggage train system, passengers and their luggage will arrive at their gates up to 50 percent faster.



The overall design was inspired by Western Pennsylvania’s rolling hills, rivers, and parks, with a nod to its industrial heritage. The most unusual feature of the new terminal is its combined 90,000 square feet of outdoor terrace among four open air spaces, including two post-security screening where passengers can wait for their flights– a first for U.S. airports.


Four new bridges will be constructed to expedite traffic, including a three-level terminal bridge that stretches over 1,300 ft and serves as the main entrance. Over 16,000 tons of steel—all domestic and all fabricated locally—are being used in the project. That steel will be held firmly in place with 9.5 miles of field welding and fastened with 182,000 connecting bolts.


The terminal’s skeleton is framed by steel beams, each up to 120 feet long. These require a larger crane to get the needed reach while being mindful of the crane and load’s impact on the underground shuttles and gate areas.


“Maxim Crane Works has a long-standing relationship with PJ Dick | Hunt and understood that this is a key project for Pittsburgh’s growth in the years to come. We worked with the steel erector to develop a plan that would work with their lifting needs and accelerated schedule,” said Bob Fleckenstein, national accounts manager for Maxim.


Two MLC300 380-ton crawler cranes with VPC-Max variable position counterweight were moved onto the site in May 2022. Both cranes are configured with a 177-foot main boom, 157-foot luffing jib, and 97-foot back mast.



The VPC-Max attachment allows the crane’s counterweight to be positioned automatically without using carbody weights. This reduces the crane’s footprint and increases the crane’s maximum load moment, allowing it to outlift much larger cranes. In addition, the VPC-Max technology reduces ground-bearing pressures, another selling point for choosing the Manitowoc crawler crane.


The cranes, nicknamed “Big Red” by the construction crews, reach heights that require clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.


“Even though the building is only about 100 feet tall, we have to have 290-plus feet of crane height because of how the structure’s geometry works,” said Rob Bramblett, project executive with PJ Dick | Hunt.


Just as planes need approval from air traffic controllers to take off and land, cranes need FAA permission and constant coordination with the tower to operate at airports. The review includes aircraft climb rates (with one engine out), the height and swing radius of the crane boom, and wind direction, among other considerations.


Every morning, construction crews outline their plans for the day with the air traffic control (ATC) tower. Officials then notify the team of potential weather concerns that may impact airport operations, which always take precedence over construction operations.



“Many times, we are picking ‘in the blind,’ so it requires a lot of advanced planning and communicating details between us and the tower,” said Bramblett. Inside the cab, the Manitowoc Crane Control System (CCS) gives operators a user-friendly interface with two full graphic displays to intuitively, and accurately, track and manage each load.


Tight communication means minimal impact on travelers. On just two occasions, the airport shut down the automated people movers connecting the airside and landside terminals overnight while the cranes lifted massive steel pieces over the tunnel. For added safety, a high-tech tunnel monitoring system uses lasers to continuously detect if there are any areas even slightly out of alignment in the tunnel.


Go local, go green


Local contracts and contractors make up 85.5 percent of the project. That includes Maxim, which has an office and crane yard 30 minutes away from the airport.


Additionally, the 38 signature steel columns inside the terminal, varying from 34 to 55 feet, forged to resemble branching trees, were fabricated by Sippel Steel Fab, located 20 minutes from the airport. Sippel has an iconic role in U.S. architecture, having provided steel for the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in New York City.


The terminal is targeting LEED Silver certification, meaning the facility will be among the most sustainable buildings in the world. For example, it will be the first airport to generate its own power through a 20-megawatt microgrid, which is supplied by five natural gas generators and more than 10,000 solar panels, installed on the site of a former landfill. At least 75 percent of waste generated by the construction of the new terminal will be recycled or reused.


The entire project will be financed through airline-related revenues, real estate income, and natural gas drilling royalties.




This article includes excerpts by Marsha Morgenstern for Blue Sky News.


Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh International Airport. Renderings courtesy of Gensler + HDR in association with luis vidal + architects.

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