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You Light Up My Life (and Help Me Land Safely)

Runway lighting in Alaska is a critical element


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Time-lapsed photo of runway lighting at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The long light streaming down from the right is an aircraft landing.

Photo by Rob Stapleton

Ever wonder what it would be like to land an airplane in the dark?

You could envision such a scenario on a computer simulation or in a movie, but for all intents and purposes, a pilot requires some level of illumination to safely land a plane. 

The reality is that one of the most critical elements to flight is the landing.

To land, pilots must have some modicum of visual measure of proximity to the ground and length of the field upon which to set the tires down and then brake before going past the other end. The larger the plane, the more complex the logistics and infrastructure are for this consideration. 

Add to the mix of landing variables some boisterous weather, intermittent and seasonal daylight or complete darkness, remote and treacherous terrain, and varied surface areas and now the calculus must be even more precise for a safe and efficient landing. 

Toss all of these factors into your flight plan and destination, and there’s a good chance you’re in the one state that juggles such obstacles on a daily basis: Alaska.

 

Intersection signage and lights are extremely important at night and during inclement weather to aid pilots on and off runways once cleared by Air Traffic Control. 

Photo by Rob Stapleton

 

Landing Strips and Lights 

Most people know Alaska is a huge state. Certainly anyone who flies intrastate understands the dimensions of travel and the importance to land the plane, especially in remote locations when fuel is coveted and alternative landing strips are few and far between.

The sheer number of airports in the state is actually incredible in proportion to the number of people that work and live here, and that means a massive amount of lighting is necessary for the collection of landing fields. 

Official landing strips are airstrips registered by FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and in the 5010 Airport Master Record. Alaska has 395 public-use airports comprised of 278 land-based, 4 heliports, and 113 seaplane bases. Approximately 749 recorded landing areas, including private, public, and military, exist across the state. 

Of course, bush pilots and those recreationally flying often land their planes on the thousands of Alaska lakes, water systems, sand bars, and dry surfaces absent a constructed landing strip. By the numbers, the State of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF) owns and operates 242 airports.

Troy LaRue is a second-generation DOTPF airport manager. In his 20th year with the Department, he’s been at his current position as division operations manager for the Division of Statewide Aviation (SWA) for more than two years. 

Working with LaRue is SWA’s Rural Aviation System Planner Rebecca Rauf. Rauf oversees aviation planning and future forecasting, including the Airport Master Record program, which means she manages the contractors who inspect all public airports, many of which are lighted. 

SWA oversees the system planning property management of Alaska airports and the Spending Plan, which includes safety and security. Safety officers work with the FAA to meet grant assurances and comply with regulations. Landing strip lighting is integral to nighttime operations, so SWA coordinates internally with Maintenance and Operations (M&O) to ensure runway lights across the state remain operable throughout the year.

LaRue delineates that Anchorage International and Fairbanks International Airports are the only two airports with the “international” status in the state. Ketchikan Airport is an exception because it’s owned by the state but operated by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. He adds there are many other landing strips in Alaska but little to no maintenance is performed on them. The DOTPF refers to these other runways as backcountry landing strips. There are also numerous private airports across the map and a handful of municipal airport such as Juneau International, Kenai, Merrill Field, Palmer, and Nenana that require some level of lighting and oversight but may not be managed by the state directly.

Rauf notes there are 162 airports in DOTPF’s inventory (of 242) that have lighting on at least one runway at the airport. That equates to 80 unlit DOTPF airports throughout the state. Many of these runways are seaplane bases or smaller rural strips. She adds that of the 162 airports, 27 have high-intensity lighting on at least one of their runways and the remainder have medium intensity. 

Both LaRue and Rauf attest to the problematic fact that where there is lighting on a runway, it’s not always easy to manage. They note the airports that have been built on permafrost cause the largest issue for DOTPF. Climate change and melting permafrost cause the ground to shift, which thereby breaks conduits, pulls wires apart, and leaves the lighting system inoperable. They add that it’s common to experience these issues in most cold regions of the state, from northern Alaska to south as far as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where deep freezes hinder repairs. Rauf says many of the areas are very remote and DOTPF doesn’t have resources within the respective community to make immediate repairs, costing time and resources to get a maintenance worker there. 

Vandalism is a problem as well; the state, via taxpayers, bears the fiscal brunt to remedy damaged lights. SWA has active public outreach initiatives to reduce vandalism of airstrips and lighting, including through partnership with Alaska communities who depend on the runway for supplies and medical necessity like an emergency medevac. “There are so many communities in Alaska that have one transportation mode, and that is air. Should a person in the village need medical care beyond the village’s resources during the winter months of darkness, as well as during periods of inclement weather and low visibility year round, the lighting system is vital to air transportation,” says Rauf. 

One unique Alaska airfield that’s been in the news every so often is at Cold Bay. The main runway is 10,180 feet by 150 feet. This airport is vital to all transcontinental traffic that utilizes Cold Bay as an alternate airport. LaRue notes that when an aircraft experiences an emergency, especially when crossing the Pacific Ocean from Asia, exigency caused by mechanical failure requires a place to land. Many airlines use Cold Bay as an alternative to attempting to get to Anchorage when in duress. In 2016, American Airlines landed a Boeing 787 with 114 people on board because of an engine failure. In January of this year, Delta Airlines landed a 767-300 with 210 people on board that also had an engine out. This is yet another vital Alaska airport. FAA maintains many navigation aids there, including a full ILS, illustrating how important lighting is to aviation safety, however remote.

Several DOTPF airport lighting projects will be underway this year, primarily in the northern part of the state. A new taxiway lighting system is being installed in Cordova, new airport lighting systems are being installed in Galena and Gambell, and airfield lighting replacements will occur at Golovin, St. Michael, and Kiana. The Haines Airport will also have new general aviation apron lighting and taxiway edge lights reconstructed.

 

Let There Be Light

While DOT manages airports, runways, and lighting in Alaska, there remains the critical supply and technical challenge to the industry. Someone has to manufacture, sell, and install the special lights that keep the airports operational. 

 

AirSide Solutions

The lion’s share of lighting systems that you’ll see across Alaska airports statewide are manufactured by ADB Safegate and supplied by AirSide Solutions, their exclusive distributor in the state. Another industry leader, Cooper Crouse-Hinds, is likely the second largest supplier in the state.

The superiority of functional and consistently running technology is what quantifies when the rubber meets the runway. Lighting matters in aviation, and AirSide’s extensive range of products include runway and taxiway lighting systems, airfield signage systems that direct the pilots on the ground to the proper destinations, approach lighting systems that give the pilots runway distance and centerline guidance while on final approach, and airfield power and control systems that enable the air traffic controllers and pilots to operate the lighting systems.

Led by Ronald Nelson, the company’s president, AirSide markets its airfield products in an eight-state region that includes Alaska, with an impressive impact on safety standards and regulatory compliance. Headquartered in Auburn, Washington, Airside’s close proximity to Alaska and ten employees allow for expedited services and support for the 49th state.

Rick Lafferty, vice president and Alaska’s regional manager, is particularly proud of AirSide’s track record. “AirSide Solutions has been a partner with the Alaska airports, and its airfield contractors, for over twenty-eight years,” says Lafferty. “Our goal is to provide the highest quality airfield lighting systems and technical support services to the market, improving the safety and reliability of airfields in Alaska.”

Nelson and Lafferty make reference to some of the challenging airfields their company has supplied lighting systems to over the last three decades. Point Thomson Airfield is an example. Owned and operated by Exxon Mobil and located on the North Slope, the airfield faces some of the most challenging weather conditions in North America, yet Point Thomson maintains a near-perfect record of successful approaches and landings. Lafferty adds that the high intensity airfield lighting and approach system installed at Point Thomson is a significant reason for the reliability of safe landings.

Nelson reminds that Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the second busiest airport in the North American market, in terms of air cargo volume. The freight is most often carried by large-body aircrafts like the Boeing 747 and MD 111. In addition to the severe weather conditions, the sheer weight of the aircraft and jet blast forces during takeoff and landing operations creates an enormous strain on the Anchorage airfield lighting systems. AirSide has met the challenge to deliver what it deems the best system considering the adversity of Mother Nature. In the industry, Nelson explains, the parlance adopted is “Anchorage Tested.”

“If the airfield lighting equipment works at Anchorage, it will work anywhere in the world,” he says.

Lafferty notes that Juneau Airport is located in a very challenging location, requiring Alaska Airlines to employ state-of-the-art EVS (Electronic Visual Systems) on their aircrafts. During extremely poor visibility conditions, more common than not in the Southeast region, EVS captures the infrared heat signatures of the airfield lighting system and displays an exact replication on the cockpit window in the plane. The system enables pilots to land their aircraft in conditions that, without EVS, would be too dangerous or impossible, risking passenger safety.

“AirSide Solutions really is Alaska’s full-line supplier of airfield and heliport lighting and navigation systems, equipment, and technical services, and we’re very proud of that privilege,” adds Nelson. “Our core mission is to provide the state’s airside market with value-added products, technical services, and logistical support for advancing the safety and reliability of airfield navigation, and our lighting systems are integral. Alaskans depend on it, and so do we. Our core strength remains the diversity and dedication of our workforce, celebrating well over 150 years of combined and collective years of service and experience.”

 

NPC Energy Services

If companies like AirSide Solutions sells lighting systems, and the State of Alaska buys them and maintains them as the owner of the airports, who installs the systems?

Enter NPC Energy Services (NPCES). Based in South Anchorage, the company has a core group of about twenty-four employees, and that number typically rises to more than sixty during the construction season. Led by Paul Lantz, general manager and vice president of operations, the company is a full-service electrical contractor. 

“In the aviation market NPCES is primarily an installer of airfield lighting and other landing aids and atmospheric equipment, but we also assist facility owners, their GC’s and maintenance contractors, and key vendors with project scoping, budgeting, and scheduling,” says Lantz. In some cases, he adds, the company performs electrical preventive maintenance and provides OSHA and NFPA 70E compliance programs for the equipment which powers and controls the airfield lighting so it is as reliable and safe to operate and maintain as possible. 

While performing preventive maintenance, NPCES also tasks technicians with gathering the data needed to do arc flash hazard assessments and coordination studies. Engineering data, arc flash labeling, and training and equipment documentation is securely stored in a database that NPC’s clients, like the State of Alaska, have access to 24/7 via the Internet for maintenance planning or use in the event of an emergency on an airfield, runway, or at an airport property. 

Lantz explains that installation of airport lighting systems typically involves close coordination with the civil contractor and airport operations to ensure the work is completed safely and with the least amount of disruption to the airport users and travelling public as possible. He adds that these are often large civil and electrical construction projects with very tight timetables and construction phasing. They are very labor and equipment intensive, and therefore expensive, and require experienced managers who can work together as a team to avoid missteps and delays.

NPCES offers its services to airport facilities throughout Alaska, and Lantz notes that the short construction season, temperamental weather conditions, and challenging logistics often make projects interesting for his crews. 

The company is particularly proud of its work at Anchorage International Airport and JBER, as it’s provided an opportunity to support some of Alaska’s key economic and national defense infrastructure and ensure its safe and reliable operation.

Over the 2017 season, NPCES has airfield lighting projects underway in Cold Bay, Cordova, Kotzebue, and Hooper Bay, and anticipates additional projects in Anchorage, Juneau, and on JBER. 

 

Lighting the Way to Our Safety

“Our rural airport system is not only the largest in the nation, but I will claim it is also the most challenging,” says LaRue. “The DOTPF M&O staff is really the backbone of the system; they are the most diversified group of talented people I have ever worked with. They work in the most extreme weather conditions and remote locations in Alaska. They are truly our biggest resource.”

Considering the complexity in logistics, management, and supply chain, adding the privatized installation and State-operated management, there’s a definite team approach to keeping the lights on at Alaska airports that works and works well.

The enormity of LaRue and Rauf’s infrastructural purview says it all. Recall that Alaska has 395 public-use airports, and 242 are owned and operate by the state. Nothing compares to this nationally. For example, Oregon operates 40 airports, Montana has an inventory of 126 public use airports, and Washington state has 135 airports and is considered one of the larger systems compared to many other states in the nation—yet all are dwarfed by Alaska’s inventory.

Alaska’s airports remain safe, and that status is testament in large part to the suppliers, installers, maintenance technicians, and management who keep the runways illuminated. 

Thanks to the State of Alaska’s DOTPF staff, and the corporate professionals in the lighting world, we can all breathe a little easier every time we touchdown in a plane on a well-lit runway. 

“Let there be light” never sounded sweeter to a pilot, and her passengers, when landing a plane in the Last Frontier.   

This article first appeared in the April 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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