"Solar Power Lights the Night", Airforce Civil Engineer

Air Force Civil Engineer Magazine
Air Force Civil Engineer
Volume 11, Issue 4, Page 30

Written by Capt Derek Ferland, 100th CES

During Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing launched more than 6,000 sorties, with an average of 500 a day during peak periods. During night operations, coalition pilots probably didn't notice that the taxiway system lighting came from solar-powered light-emitting diode, or LED, lights.

The 332nd ECES was given the new taxiway project for the airfield in December 2002. War plans called for more than 150 coalition fighter aircraft to be based at the airfield, which had an established primary runway and an alternate, parallel runway used strictly as a taxiway. To safely support the projected sortie rate, both runways would have to be used as primaries and a new, parallel taxiway system built.

Airfield lighting was necessary to make the new airfield surfaces fully mission capable for night operations, but lighting was not included in the contract for two reasons. The project's urgency meant inadequate time to design a traditional airfield lighting system, let alone get it constructed and commissioned in time for OIF. Moreover, a traditional taxiway lighting system probably would have exceeded the $3 million funding approval level. "We simply had to push the airfield lighting portion of the project to the back burner because it was more important to get the paving started", said Mike Berkes, the contract project engineer.

Unable to obtain an Expeditionary Airfield Lighting System kit from the war reserve materiel inventory, the 332nd ECES explored a solution that was at first unsettling: using solar-powered LED lights on a wartime taxiway. These lights had been used successfully on civilian airfields, but never for such a large-scale military application in a situation with so much at stake.

Carmanah Model 601
The engineers conducted a demonstration for the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group on an unlit road with two lights on the ground at distances of 60 and 120 meters. Lt Col Robert "Ricky" Ricarte, commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, summed up the test's results, "We were impressed with the brightness and clarity of the lights, and surprised that a solar-powered light could be that effective."

The 332nd ECES found two sources for solar-powered LED lights that met all relevant Federal Aviation Administration standards. Delivery from both companies was quick and 350 lights were completely installed five days after they arrived. The last light was installed approximately 20 hours prior to the start of OIF. Luckily, the 332nd ECES never had to use their backup plan - using fabricated plastic posts covered with highly reflective material.

The lights exceeded all expectations for use in this situation. During use of the airfield, only 20 lights had to be replaced because they malfunctioned or were crushed by emergency response vehicles. Because each LED light is an independent, self-contained unit, they were very easy for personnel to handle, install and maintain. The excess solar-powered lights were sent to support combat operations at Tallil and Kirkuk ABs after they were captured and converted into expeditionary airfields. The lights' small size and low weight made them ideal for transportation into Iraq.

The true testament of the lights' performance, however, came from the pilots. "We had zero ground safety incidents during the war largely because the taxiways were well lit. Our coalition pilots were able to keep their minds focused on the business at hand, which was to project lethal aerospace power", said Lt. Col. Ricarte. Capt. Derek Ferland is the Engineering Flight Commander for the 100th CES, RAF Mildenhall. He was the Engineering Flight Chief with the 332nd ECES.

Author's note: While the LED lights used in the setting described in this article are appropriate for use in some contingency situations, such as the one recounted in this article, they do not meet Air Force requirements for permanent fixed base operations. Should the need for blackout arise, the LED lights described in this article must be individually turned off and reactivated manually, using a magnetic device.