It might take days or weeks for to change a single burned out light bulb at home.
That isn’t a luxury afforded Bill Kassinger, airfield lighting electrician and inspector.
He and the staff are charged with making certain that more than 3,800 lights always are burning at Tulsa International Airport and another 2,300 are lighted at Jenks Riverside Airport. Combined, that is 6,100 bulbs.
Just as important as the lights is the maintenance of more than 1,925 lights in the parking structure, maintaining more than 40 miles of underground 5,000 volt cable and more than 280 roadway/street lights.
Kassinger is one of the City of Tulsa’s ‘‘Hidden Heroes’’ who does his job unseen by most people. Yet, thousands of people unknowingly rely on his expertise and the expertise of the electrical staff as they use Tulsa’s airport facilities each day.
It would be a tremendous task to change out all the bulbs if they burned out at once, he said. Fortunately, the only time all lights went out at once recently was due to the Dec. 9, 2007 ice storm. That was when the airport lost all electric feeds. Lighting was restored as problems affecting the system were repaired.
All runway lighting is safety-oriented, Kassinger explained. Blue lights mark the taxiway while main runway lights are white. Green and red lights are mixed at the end of the runway, each color giving pilots information about takeoff and landing procedures.
The Surface Movement Guidance System — SMGS —lights in the middle of the runway that guide pilots to the terminal in bad weather.
FAA personnel maintain flashing lights pointing pilots to the end of the runway.
Keeping the lights turned on puts the maintenance crew next to runways.
They maintain constant radio contact with each other as well as the control tower. While there is a safe work zone — 250 feet from the center of the runway — all work stops if a commercial aircraft is within 40 miles of Tulsa.
During the past nine years since Kassinger has been at the airport, said the crew has been able to keep runways open in all types of weather.
‘‘We actually had to close only once because the ice came in too thick, too fast and got ahead of us,’’ he said. Despite those difficulties, the airport was operational in between six to eight hours.
Recalling the Dec. 9 ice storm, Kassinger said he arrived at work at 6 a.m. and watched power transformers explode on the south side of Tulsa.
‘‘When power failed, it was panic time for the staff, yet there wasn’t much that could be done,’’ he said. ‘‘We made certain generators were working on all runway lights and fire stations. Minimal generator power was provided at the airport terminal. All that could be done was stand by and watch as the AEP/PSO personnel worked to restore electricity. This is the first time that all power has been lost. Generally one feeder line will be lost, but the other remains operational.
Repairs to the lights generally are quickly made, Kassinger said. But if there is a major problem, the runway will be closed.
That closing involves more than shutting the landing strip down. Generally, at least two days notice is required because the FAA, airlines and others must be notified. If the long runway is closed, airlines must adjust passenger numbers to take lighter loads because of the shorter takeoff and landing strips.
When the runway is closed, everyone, electrical, field maintenance and anyone involved in the project get out and do as much work as they can.
Regardless of the weather — rain, sleet, snow or heat — the crew is on 24-hour call. One man on standby gets the first call. If he needs help, everyone is called.
Kassinger said he has been around the electrical industry for more than 40 years and has found that airfield lighting is far different from any other experience.
All are licensed journeymen by the City of Tulsa and State of Oklahoma.
It takes time to learn how the airport system works, he explained, adding that he is a reasonably fast learner, yet it took him two years to learn and fully understand the complex electrical system.
‘‘The outside electrical world is concerned about voltage while here at the airport we are concerned with amperes,’’ he said. That is because the lighting system is hooked in a series — straight line — and troubleshooting takes time and patience.
Fortunately, there are ways to isolate the problem so it quickly can be repaired, Kassinger added.
Maintenance crew safety is critical and that is one reason each electrician has his own radio-equipped pickup when working on various issues, he said. ‘‘We are scattered all over the airfield and maintain constant contact with each other, making it possible to advise when circuits are being activated. Without that immediate information, a person could be badly hurt — and there is no second chance with this type of electricity.’’
Electricians also work with air traffic control, transportation officials and security personnel.
‘‘It’s a delicate balance, but we try to keep everyone happy,’’ Kassinger said. When major issues occur on the airfield, every effort is made to work around all schedules. Kassinger’s work includes inspecting the work done by engineers and subcontractors, making certain that something isn’t done that would shut the airport down.
These people are not familiar with the airport electrical or signage system and sometimes it is necessary to ‘‘take them by the hand and help them through the engineering job.’’
It means coordinating meetings with engineers to guide them through the FAA specifications and city electrical codes.
Most of the electrical team’s work is focused on Tulsa International Airport, but Kassinger and crew sometimes are called to Jones Riverside that handles general aviation at what is classified as the state’s busiest airport.
Control systems, though older, are similar to those at the larger airport.
‘‘I only oversee the electrical portion at Jones Riverside,’’ he said. Problems vary. Recently there has been a rash of aircraft running over signs. These have to be rebuilt or new signage ordered.
On regular workdays, shifts begin at 6:30 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. After that, personnel are on call. One person drives his truck home and the rest use their own vehicles to get to and from work. But if additional help is needed, everyone is called.
Six people are authorized in the department, but only three slots currently are filled.
This concerns Kassinger because of the time it takes to get people up to speed on the job and he too is looking towards the day he will retire.