Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Yes, a story about changing lightbulbs can be interesting

Posted By on Wed, Sep 10, 2014 at 11:01 AM

The Wall Street Journal's airlines and aviation beat reporter, Susan Carey, had an article in yesterday's paper about the people who maintain the "giant lamps used to guide night pilots through the lonely peaks of western Montana." As you can probably imagine, giant lamps aren't exactly the latest in aviation-guidance technology. In fact, the FAA decommissioned its last lamp of this kind in 1972. "But the state of Montana, whose general-aviation pilots liked the extra protection the beacons afforded, took over some with FAA permission and kept them going," Carey writes.

  • Courtesy Montana Dept. of Transportation

The account of how the lights are maintained is pretty fascinating:

Mr. Rogan and colleague Ken Wilhelm, employees of the Montana Transportation Department's Aeronautics Division, visit each of the 17 beacons three times a year, solo in summer and in pairs on winter trips that require snow machines—and snowshoes. They've encountered bears, snakes, wolves and swarms of flying ants. Birds use the beacons as perches and teenagers have been known to climb up and party at the top. Sometimes passersby use the lights for target practice.

"I've had to replace this dome four times," Mr. Rogan says of the big light atop the 79-year-old MacDonald Pass beacon here on a wind-whipped, 6,500-foot mountain on the Continental Divide.

The work isn't for the acrophobic. After scaling the MacDonald Pass beacon on a recent morning, Mr. Rogan unlocks the catwalk at the top and crawls toward the large, rotating light dome and two smaller, stationary ones. He swaps in new bulbs, greases the main bearing, and checks the wiring before descending.

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