We’ll Keep the Lights On for You

(Photos and video by Beth Hollerich)

“Never-ending.”

That’s how airport electrician Vince Lancia described the task of maintaining the 3,500-some lights covering the airfield at Pittsburgh International.

Lancia, who has worked at PIT for 17 years, is responsible for refurbishing lights on the airfield’s taxiways and runways. On an average day, he repairs anywhere from six to 20 malfunctioning fixtures in his shop, which are identified by Airport Operations staff during daily airfield inspections.

Not only are there thousands of lights on the taxiways and runways, airports use more than a dozen types of fixtures of different colors and very specific functions to guide aircraft on and off the airfield.

“I can come in, and my team will ask for three ‘green-greens’ and two ‘yellow-yellows,’” Lancia said.

Electrician foreman Mark Lane added that lights on the airfield are critical for airport operations and must pass an annual inspection by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Our jobs keep the airport running,” said Lane. “Each person works as if they have a family member on the next plane about to takeoff or land here.”

The fixtures come by many names, including Centerline, Edge, Threshold, Touchdown, PAPI, and REIL lights.

On the runway, Centerline lights are white and red (depending on location), illuminating the center of the runway. White or amber Edge lights indicate the edge of the runway, and white Touchdown lights guide incoming aircraft toward the best place to land.

Precision Approach Path Indicator lights, also known as PAPI, can be found on the side of the runway and are used to help pilots maintain the proper elevation on approach. White PAPI lights tell pilots they are flying too high, red-on-white lights signal that the plane is at the correct altitude, and red-on-red lights warn a pilot that the aircraft is too low.

Similarly, Runway End Identifier, known as REIL, lights are bright, flashing lights that identify where the runway ends. Threshold lights help pilots identify the beginning of the runway (green) and the end (red).

“Safety and security are our top priorities and this process is a key piece of that on the airfield,” said Patrick Carreno, Vice President of Airport Operations. “This is one of those hidden items that helps keep the airport going, but unless you work at an airport you probably would never know.”

Runway lights can take a beating from the weather, especially heavy rain and snow. They sometimes get knocked out by maintenance vehicles or snow plows.

If a series of adjacent lights go out, electricians must respond quickly to replace them, or the FAA Air Traffic Control Tower could be forced to direct air traffic to different runways at PIT.

Many airports outsource the work. But for Lancia and his team, fixing the lights to keep the airport running is all in a day’s work.

“You never know what you’re getting into every day. The planes have to land, so it’s our job to keep all of the lights working on the field.”

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