Burbank Airport Modernizes Lighting System After Airfield Blackout

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

The lights are once again bright at Burbank Bob Hope Airport (BUR), thanks to three years of planning and teamwork, plus a giant dose of resiliency. After enduring a complete airfield lighting failure, the Southern California airport rallied to reconstruct an entirely new system. 

Airport Director Dan Feger explains that BUR's previous airfield lighting, which dated back to the late 1970s, had functioned reliably until one day in November 2012. 

"Our runway lighting system failed; and when it failed, we were not able to timely fix it," he recalls. "That evening, the runway was shut down, and it went dark - creating all kinds of problems for the air carriers."

Project: New Airfield Lighting System 
Location: Burbank (CA) Bob Hope Airport
Owner: Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority
Design: AECOM
Contractor: Royal Electric
Fixtures: ADB Airfield Solutions
Signs, Sign Panels & LED Sign Retrofit Kit: Standard Signs
New Wiring: 80 miles (56 miles of #8 wire; 24 miles of safety ground wire)
Trenching & New Conduit: 1 mile
New Fixtures & Associated Components: 1,285

Airfield electricians determined that wiring was the problem and had the system "marginally operational" the next day, recounts Ferger. Each subsequent day, crews removed and replaced individual sections of corroded wire that were causing trouble. A battery-operated standby system was also purchased in case of another outage, but officials realized it could prove to be a small bandage for a potentially large wound. 

"The authority recognized it was now time for us to invest some substantial money and rebuild the entirety of the system," Feger comments. In 2013, BUR began researching federal funding and secured FAA approvals for a completely new airfield lighting system. 

No Time to Wait

Bob Anderson, director of engineering and planning at the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, notes that after BUR's system failed, immediate attention was given to procuring a design consultant. AECOM was selected for the design work and put to task immediately. "We knew it was going to take some time, and we'd have to keep the bandage system going until the bidding process and construction process were completed," Anderson recalls. 

While airport personnel are proud that they kept the old system running for more than three decades, Feger reflects on the outage as part of a greater learning process. "We want people to learn from our experience," he comments. "You should not let a wiring system go as many as 20 to 30 years; it's too long. So, we will, in the future, accelerate the time in which we re-wire the system." 

After a new system was engineered, BUR quickly hired an electrical contractor to start replacing and rewiring the entire airfield lighting system. Royal Electric was engaged immediately at the start of construction, relates Karen Sepulveda, manager of construction services for the airport authority.

The new system required more than a mile of trenching and new conduit, plus 80 miles of wiring. Contractors also installed 1,285 new fixtures and associated components.

Keeping Pace

Royal's crews reported for duty at BUR the Monday after New Year's, just months after the airport bid the project in October 2014. "It was a pretty quick turnaround from the time we found out we got the project to the funding, to actually mobilizing people to the site," remarks Randy Sondreal, a division and project manager with the electrical contractor. "We understood the need to get out there as soon as possible because their circuit readings were fluctuating all over the place." 

Crews installed cables while waiting for other materials to arrive. They performed most of the work at night, to minimize impact to airport operations. Teamwork allowed for minimal daytime work on certain taxiways, opening up the schedule and speeding progress, Sondreal explains. Work ran from early January until mid-June, with a mix of about 25 electricians, laborers and operators on-site at peak. "There wasn't a circuit or light fixture we didn't replace," he notes of the project's scope. "Almost all of the signs were either brand new or upgraded as well." 

Sondreal notes that he is always happy after a successful installation. But he recalls feeling an extra adrenaline rush the first time BUR's new airfield lights flipped on. 

Drainage Difficulties

The local climate stresses airfield lighting at both ends of the weather spectrum. Burbank's usual hot, dry conditions create a tough environment for electrical systems. When it does rain, however, water gets into the conduits and cans - especially since BUR slopes to the southeast, explains Feger. Prior to the recent system replacement, cans would fill with water and take a long time to drain. "The wires feeding the high voltage system were completely submerged and stayed submerged," he elaborates. "Over time, the splices in the wire started to leak, the water got into the splice and started deteriorating the wire. That's a lesson we're proud to say we learned from it." 

As a fix, the airport retrofitted about 800 cans with drains and gravel draining beds. Sondreal says the new changes are a good solution that significantly upgrades the system's performance. That said, he also notes that over time, the cans could fill with dirt and need to be cleaned. "Preventive maintenance will keep the system going," he adds. 

The new measures definitely reduce draining time, Feger reports. While it used to take days for rainwater to leave the cans, they now drain almost immediately. Considering that Burbank's groundwater table is 250 feet below grade, BUR has good drainage compared to other area airports, he comments.  

Long-term Solutions

The lights inside the cans were upgraded to LEDs. Feger describes the new illumination as very crisp and clear, and says that the airfield lighting is better than it's ever been. The new LEDs are not so bright, though, that they prove annoying or distracting to BUR's urban neighbors. "It's actually really hard to see the airport from businesses, homes, etc.," Feger reports. "We're very pleased with the final outcome of the project."

He also notes that the new system has a much higher resistance than before, and has eliminated "leaks" into the ground. These days, current readings regularly exceed 50 mega-ohms; before the previous system failed, they averaged less than 1 mega-ohm. 

Moving Forward

In retrospect, Sondreal largely attributes the success of BUR's project to having everyone included in decisions right from the start. "That doesn't always happen," he reflects, noting that sometimes an engineer simply hands plans off for installation. "In a case like this, that would have been disastrous," he remarks. 

Sondreal encourages airport executives to stay involved with airfield lighting projects. Keeping everyone on the same page saves time, money and gives the best end product for every dollar spent, he emphasizes. 

As the individual tasked with bringing the design through construction safely and efficiently, Sepulveda also highlights the project team's collaborative approach. "The operations, maintenance and engineering departments work as a unified team at BUR, and the result is efficient coordination and execution."

The entire project was consequently completed without delays to air carriers or general aviation tenants, she notes. According to Feger, work was so well coordinated, that construction was practically "invisible."

Next on the airport's bucket list is runway reconstruction, and preliminary design work has already begun. Discussion about replacing BUR's 85-year-old terminal building is also ongoing. 

In the meantime, it's business as usual at BUR ... only brighter. 


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