By Master Sgt. Philip Speck, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 04, 2012
KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tech. Sgt. Willie Halfhill and Staff Sgt. Monty Williams were eating midnight chow at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, when they received an urgent call from the airfield tower June 18, 2011.
The runway lights were pulsing from bright to dim, posing safety issues for pilots attempting to land at the Air Force's busiest airfield. Halfhill and Williams, both electrical journeymen in the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Civil Engineer Squadron, quickly left the dining facility and were on-site within minutes.
"When we arrived on scene and saw the lights fading in and out, I knew there was a problem," Halfhill recalled.
They located the airfield lighting regulator, but after running a series of tests, the regulator stopped working altogether. In an instant, the runway went completely dark.
Halfhill and Williams scrambled to wake sleeping engineers who could help investigate the lighting system along the 11,800 foot runway, but a stream of air traffic continued to roll in. Pilots donned night-vision goggles and kept landing their aircraft, preventing the engineers from gaining access to the runway, 30,000 feet of lighting cable and hundreds of lights, Halfhill said.
The crew decided to stand down until lunchtime when the airfield could be closed for 30-minute intervals. After repairing a cable, the problem persisted, but they soon discovered another issue: a burned-out transformer. The team installed a new transformer, and all the lights came back up around 7:30 p.m.
The quick recovery was possible in part because of training the Airmen received in Louisville, Ky., before they ever deployed to Afghanistan, Halfhill said. That training, offered by employees of the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, was designed to familiarize the Air Guardsmen with commercial lighting systems like those at Louisville International Airport and, as it so happens, Bagram Airfield.
If it weren't for the training, Halfhill said, the problem would have been more difficult to diagnose and taken much longer to repair.
To show the unit's appreciation for the training, the commander of the 123rd Civil Engineer Sqaudron, Lt. Col. Phil Howard, presented three airport authority employees with coins during a recognition ceremony held at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base on Sept. 21. Honored during the event were Tom Hatfield, Cameron Roberts and Tony Roy.
"One of the reasons (our Airmen) were able to do what they did out there is because of your generosity in allowing us to get out onto the airfield in Louisville and train," Howard told the airport authority team.
Lt. Col. Matt Stone, deputy commander of the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Mission Support Group, said the airport employees' efforts had a positive impact on Operation Enduring Freedom.
"You contributed directly to the war effort over there," Stone told the men. "These guys went over there as an experienced, much-better-trained crew -- a more capable crew -- because of what the three of you did. You spun them up on modern technology in airfield lighting."
Prior to the Kentucky Air Guardsmen's deployment, Halfhill contacted his civil engineer counterpart in Afghanistan for information about conditions at Bagram. He was told the airfield used commercial lighting gear, and not the Emergency Airfield Lighting System the Kentucky Airmen were familiar with.
So Halfhill contacted the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, with whom the Kentucky Air National Guard shares an airfield, to arrange training. Four civil engineers met with the airport team for two weeks, learning about the maintenance and troubleshooting of commercial airfield lighting.
"That two weeks of training we got helped immensely," Halfhill said.
Halfhill, Williams and a Tennessee Air Guard civil engineer made up the airfield lighting team during the 123rd's extremely busy deployment to Bagram. They worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., six days a week (and sometimes more), constantly replacing lights that were damaged by jet blasts or run over during hundreds of daily aircraft operations. Sometimes, the team would have just a 30-second window in which to replace a light.
"The tempo was unbelievable," Halfhill said. "That place never stopped."
Howard compared the engineers to a well-oiled pit crew because of their ability to execute precision repairs in minimal time.
"I went out one night and took a video of them," Howard recalled, "and it looked like the Indianapolis 500."
Hatfield, an airfield technician with the airport authority, said his team was pleased to have had the opportunity to work with the Air Guardsmen.
"It made us feel good that we were able to teach them how to work on these existing systems safely, and feel comfortable with the system, so it would be one less thing to worry about on their upcoming deployment," Hatfield said.
"We look forward to continuing this partnership, and helping educate any new recruits that may be deploying any time in the future," he added.