Airport's electricians help light the way for airplanes

By Ed Brock

For James Hull and his crew of electricians at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the question is not how many people it takes to change a lightbulb.

The question is how can you change the bulb with hundreds of airplanes landing and taking off around you, sometimes almost on top of you. It's even difficult to answer the question of how may bulbs there are to change.

"We know it's approximately 14,000 total," said Hull, the airport's aviation airfield lighting supervisor.

And it's not just the bulbs that Hull and the 14 electricians under him have to maintain.

There are some 700 illuminated signs that have to be looked after as well, and Hull is the man responsible for all that.

It's a little like a gigantic Christmas tree with the lights separated by color into groups that signify different locations and other information for the thousands of pilots who fly into one of the world's busiest passenger airports.

Taxiway edge lights are blue and their center lights are green in order to distinguish them from runway lights. And they aren't just any shade of blue and green, but "aviation" blue and green.

"The Federal Aviation Administration requires them to be in a certain range," Hull said.

The lights are aviation yellow at the "hold bar" where the airplanes wait for their turn to roll onto the runway.

On the runway the center lights and edge lights are white at the "approach" end from which airplanes are coming in for a landing. Near the end of the runway at about 3,000 feet the white lights begin to alternate with red lights in the center and aviation amber on the sides.

"That lets the pilot know he's running out of runway," Hull said.

In the last 1,000 feet they go all red and all amber.

Hull said each bulb uses up about 45 to 60 watts of electricity.

"We used to have 200 watt bulbs, but we don't have any more of those," Hull said.

He couldn't say how much electricity the system uses, and he said the frequency with which they have to change the bulbs depends on the amount of usage. That usage goes up in the winter when the days are shorter, and in inclement weather.

"On some days you might run them 24 hours a day," Hull said.

For example, on Dec. 28 they repaired 10 lights, and on Dec. 21 they repaired nine.

"Typically we won't have a lot out at the same time," Hull said, adding that there is also an FAA limit on how many are allowed to be out at one time.

A new control and monitoring system recently installed will alert Hull and his crews to large scale outages, but for the most part they have to rely on regular, visual inspections to find bulbs that need replacing.

Hull, 49, has been working at Hartsfield-Jackson for nine years and has been supervisor for about one year. He's been out on the field doing the same job Aviation Airfield Electrician Senior Gene Newton does now.

Newton and the other electricians have a few extra challenges on their jobs. For one thing, they have to take the usual precautions of dealing with a system that can have up to 5,000 volts running through it at one point.

"We have to be careful that the fixture or transformer's not shorted out," Newton said.

And there have been times when they were out on a runway changing a bulb when they hear the control tower on the radio clear a plane to land on that runway.

"We'll immediately call the tower and say 'Excuse me,'" Newton said.

On the other hand, the tower has priority and Newton and the others need to be ready to clear a runway immediately if the tower needs it.

And the opening of the airport's fifth runway in 2006 will mean an additional 2,000 or so lights for Hull to look after, including those on the accompanying taxiways and the lights in the tunnel through which Interstate 285 will run under the new runway.

"We'll hire extra people for that next year," Hull said.