Skip to content

Bechtel’s Impact Report

Illuminating Aircraft

  • By
    portrait of Brian James
    Brian James, Business Communications Specialist
  • 09 February 2020
     6 Min Read

An interview with engineer Mai Yeung, a Bechtel expert on airport lighting. 

Engineers have been working to improve the effective application of light to assist in the operation of aircraft dating back almost to the advent of the airplane itself. In 1924, the U.S. Army Air Service established the first transcontinental airway. Traversed in multiple legs by numerous planes, the new cross-country service depended on innovative uses of lighting infrastructure to allow pilots to take off and land safely at night. U.S. Postal Service engineers installed 50-foot beacon towers every 25 miles that lit the way for pilots. Early airfield operators used floodlights and lamps to illuminate landing strips and mark boundaries – precursors to the modern infrastructure that allows today’s airports to function safely.

To learn more about this critical part of airport safety and operations, we recently interviewed Bechtel engineer Mai Yeung. Mai has more than 35 years of engineering experience, with specialized expertise in airports. Over her career, she’s helped customers deliver 14 airports and 12 defense airfields. Currently, she’s helping build the new Western Sydney Airport in Australia. Mai is the author of an award-winning technical paper on airport lighting.

Hi Mai, welcome to Technical Talk, why don’t we start with you telling us about your current project, Western Sydney Airport?

Thank you for having me, Brian. Western Sydney Airport is the most significant infrastructure project in Australia. I am excited to be part of the Bechtel team to work on this project. As an enabler to the Western Sydney region economic growth, the airport will eventually serve 10 million passengers a year once it opens in 2026.

Stage 1 of the project consists of building an all-weather runway, connecting taxiways and terminal buildings that meet Sydney’s growing aviation needs. All-weather means the aircraft can land and take off at any weather conditions. Stage 2 will see construction of an additional runway, connecting taxiways and new terminals.

Something I learned during the preparation for this interview is just how critical lighting is to the safe operation of an airport.

That’s right! Whether it’s the role lights play in guiding airplanes during landing or illuminating workspaces so employees can safely operate 24 hours a day, modern airports could not operate without effective lighting systems. Lighting has critical implications for airport safety, so during airport design lighting placement and planning are fundamentally important.

Earlier this year, your research paper on Apron Floodlighting received the 2019 “Paper of the Year” award from the Illuminating Engineering Society Aviation Lighting Committee – congratulations on your achievement! What can you tell us about your paper, and how it contributes to the safe and efficient operation of airports around the world?

Most people are familiar with airports in terms of check-in, boarding the aircraft, and collecting baggage. An apron is the area where the aircraft parked for the passengers to board and deboard, and for supporting services such as catering, baggage handling, and refueling. Apron floodlighting provides a safe and efficient lighting environment for the proper operation of the apron and the airport.

The apron floodlighting requirement is strictly regulated by the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the American Federal Aviation Authority. My paper discussed the issues and confusion in the industry worldwide in terms of design, calculation, and evaluation methodology, the correct interpretation of these standards, and the design process and measurement of the apron floodlight.

Tasks performed at ground level are generally covered by horizontal lighting. However, tasks like catering cart handling, baggage loading, passengers getting in and out of an aircraft, all occur above ground level, alongside the main body (fuselage) of the plane. You can see why this vertical lighting level requirement is essential. The question, therefore, is how do airports effectively illuminate not just the horizontal surface of the apron that an aircraft occupies, but also the vertical plane above the apron surface, where lots of the work takes place?

Another conflict my paper addressed was how the regulation for defining the calculation area for an aircraft parking position could lead to uncertainty after the apron area was re-sized. Because of this requirement, every time the number of “parking spaces” for an airport changes, the apron floodlight at each parking bay has to be reviewed and checked to make sure it generates enough safe illumination. If the math doesn’t check out, an airport operator could interpret these results as a design fault when, in fact, it could only be a measurement fault.

What kinds of problems does this paper solve for our customers and clients?

I wrote my paper to help settle confusion in the industry over lighting standards and to help airport operators better understand their safety compliance requirements. With a better understanding of this standards requirement, the Western Sydney Airport design is being reviewed to ensure future safety compliance.

Another result is that the apron upgrade and floodlighting projects at Melbourne Airport and Gold Coast Airport have all achieved regulatory compliance.

Is this your first technical paper?  

No, I have presented other aviation lighting papers in the United Kingdom and Australia at the Australian Airport Association Conference.

What inspired you to write this paper?  

Through my professional network, I received an email request from a peer in the USA to assist in the interpretation of apron floodlighting regulations, suggesting that there was confusion and issues in the USA and Australia on how to interpret the current lighting standards requirements.

I also understand that lighting systems alone can account for almost a quarter (25%) of an airport’s energy consumption. How does Bechtel address the need airports have for more energy-efficient lighting?

As light-emitting diodes (LED) become the primary light source, apron floodlighting energy consumption is reduced. A technology called “Constant Lumen Output” can be used to “dim” the LED lights for new installations, and the controller can bring the light output up every year to compensate for the light loss due to lumen depreciation and dirt accumulation on the fitting. LED lights are also an instant light source that does not require a warmup period, allowing operators to switch off or reduce the apron floodlighting for empty aircraft parking stands.

For general lighting, for example, in the terminal, proper daylighting design application can reduce the lighting energy use during the day and the interior lighting level can be gradually increased as the daylight reduces.

To wrap up, can you talk a little about how this paper is part of Bechtel’s larger aviation industry leadership? What other benefits will customers gain from working with us on these kinds of projects?  

Australia is leading the world in the apron floodlighting, and as Bechtel’s technical industry lead in Australia, I am assisting their regulatory body’s production of an Advisory Circular for the apron floodlighting. This notice will benefit the industry and airport operators. Bechtel, as a contractor, has a historical depth of experience in this industry, with many other specialists like myself generating innovative approaches and valuable research that immediately benefits owners and operators.

Well, Mai, we genuinely appreciate your time and for joining us on Technical Talk. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us. 

Thank you, Brian, for the opportunity to share my knowledge as part of this program.


To view a copy of Mai's original presentation, please click the link below.


Receive Bechtel updates