By Maham Khan
Keith Wisniewski never breaks a sweat, mostly because it is cold on this particular May night at the O’Hare International Airport airfield. It is also because 18 years on the job has taught him to relax.
In between calls that came and went every two to three minutes on his radio and cell phone, Wisniewski told jokes.
“First and foremost, we are not taking anything too seriously tonight,” Wisniewski said with a big grin as he lowered the volume of his radio signal. “We gotta keep laughing when we work nights.”
But make no mistake, Wisniewski and his colleagues take their jobs seriously. What happens at O’Hare International Airport affects the whole world – in many ways. One slip-up and complete security, financial and operational pandemonium can break out. One job—and this night, one particular man — worked to make sure everything stayed in control.
As assistant chief of airfield operations at O’Hare, Wisniewski’s job is to ensure safety on the airfield, including aircraft runways, taxiways and gates in complete compliance with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.
This can mean anything from replacing a burnt-out runway light bulb to being the first one on the scene if an airplane catches on fire.
Wisniewski’s shared his favorite story of an airplane’s brakes that went ablaze as it landed, many years ago. This was a federal aircraft that was carrying convicts and they all had to be evacuated. Wisniewski was the first on the scene and found himself under US Marshall gunpoint with dozens of convicts on the airfield.
“‘Step down!’ They yelled at me,” Wisniewski said. “I yelled back, ‘You do your jobs and I’ll do mine!’”
A Chicago native, Wisniewski refers to himself as the “Polish guy with a hardcore Italian accent.” Five years in the Air National Guard, he served in both Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm as crew chief, and graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1991 with a degree in Aviation Studies.
In 1992, he joined the Airfield Operations team at O’Hare as a general airfield operations’ supervisor. A little over five years ago, he was promoted to the assistant “chief of the runways.”
“The overnight shift used to be the gravy shift,” said Aviation’s Projects Administrator Cyle Cantrell, who worked the overnight shift in airfield operations for two years. “It was the same money and a much lighter workload, but now, sometimes it’s the more stressful shift.”
The higher stress is due to the Chicago Department of Aviation’s (CDA) O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP). One part of the OMP involves major runway construction.
The “10C Threshold Relocation,” project, in which runway 10-Center would be permanently shortened to make room for another runway being built, began at 10 p.m. on May 5. According to the CDA, these additional runways are predicted to decrease flight delays by 10 percent.
“This project is being done through the night to minimize interference with day time operations, which are much busier,” Cantrell said. “The challenge is in making sure things are done before 6 a.m.”
The 6 a.m. deadline is pivotal for the airport system. If not met, the entire industry is affected with major scheduling conflicts and financial loss.
“If the deadline is delayed, the contractor is fined $10,000 for the first 15 minutes over 6 a.m. and then $5,000 for every 15 minutes after that,” said Airline Representative Mike Hanlon. “We have to be ready for the first line of take-offs in the morning.”
Hanlon’s job is to protect the interests of the airlines at O’Hare. He was confident they would get the job done, Hanlon said.
So was Wisniewski, whose name was on the line first and foremost. Once construction is complete, Wisniewski would be the person to give the thumbs up in FAA compliance and open the runway for service. If something goes wrong later, he would be questioned first.
“The hardest part of the job is not being able to smoke on the airfield,” Wisniewski said, only half-joking. “But I love the dynamics of my job and all the different kind of people I work with. I’m glad I’m not stuck behind the desk all day.”
At midnight, Wisniewski picked up FAA inspectors, who came to confirm that pre and post construction procedures were being followed. They mostly asked Wisniewski questions as they rode along on his drive through the airfield’s construction zone.
At 2 a.m. there was downtime. Wisniewski and Cantrell shared the effects of overnight jobs on their personal lives.
“Your social and personal life can take a beating,” said Cantrell, who is married with two kids. “That’s why I couldn’t do it more then two years.”
“You get a lot of broken hearts out here,” Wisniewski said, as he mocked his heart breaking. “That’s why I’m still single!”
Wisniewski’s master bedroom is in his basement, with cardboard covering the only window so that he can mimic night-time slumber.
At about 3 a.m. Cantrell, Hanlon and Wisniewski went to the construction zone to check statuses.
At a distance, the site looked like a cross between a war zone and a Fourth-of-July carnival with loud drilling and “BANGS” swirled in with red and blue runway lights and white concert-style lighting. Neon yellow reflector vests and hard hats glowed against black pavement and air. The city’s skyline sparkled in the distance.
By then, signage lettering on the pavement’s surface from the old threshold safety area – the extra space at the end of a runway that pilots know they have to land in case needed — was gone. All the lights had been taken out and several hundred feet of green paint had been sprayed to look like grass.
Simultaneously, bright white-and-yellow signage lettering was painted on the new threshold safety area of a shorter 10-Center runway. The persistent wind carried the smell of new paint.
Hanlon and Cantrell yawned as they checked off their construction itineraries. Both normally do not work nights.
Wisniewski said something in aviation lingo on his radio and then laughed at an exchange with another crew member.
At 5:54 a.m.– six minutes before the end of his shift, Wisniewski gave the thumbs up needed to start a busy Thursday morning for air traffic. In the next hour, nearly 20 to 30 airplanes would take-off from the new 10-Center runway.
Red-eyed, Cantrell and Hanlon shook hands. Wisniewski made some final calls and wrote a few things down.
No accidents, no injuries, no compromises and eight hours later, the job is done.
“Now I can have a cigarette,” Wisniewski said with what may have been his first yawn of the night.
Full disclosure: The author of this story is an intern with the Department of Aviation.