Building the World's Most Powerful Searchlight Truck
People always ask me why I am spending all my time and money building a life-size Tonka toy.  This is my answer:

First some background information on the searchlights

AN-TVS-3 20KW Liquid-Cooled Xenon Searchlight.  In the late 1960's and early 1970's, approximately 200 of these lights were produced pursuant to military contracts by Varo, Inc. in Texas and Strong Electric Co. in Ohio.  The lights were originally designed for illuminating distant battlefields.   

These lights were specified by the US Army Electronic Command to surpass the performance of the gigantic 60 inch carbon arc antiaircraft searchlights that were produced by the thousands for WWII. What the Army got for it's money (about $75,000 each in 1967 dollars) was a relatively compact 30 inch unit that was likely the world's most powerful mass produced searchlight.  The AN-TVS-3 provided an unparalleled 1.3 billion candlepower beam that stretched over 8 miles. The heart of the lights were huge "short arc" lamps (light bulbs) that had one inch thick quartz glass envelopes filled with xenon gas under high pressure.  The lamps burned so hot that engineers had to add a special liquid cooling system to supplement the forced air cooling system. At full power, the lights consumed close to 500 amps of 200V AC 400hz electricity.

When introduced into active duty in the late 1960's, the AN-TVS-3's were the subject of many legends.  Soldiers were told that these searchlights could cause sunburns from over a mile away.  Allegedly, the beams could ignite trees, kill bugs, and knock birds from the air.  Even though these claims were a bit exaggerated, some of the most incredible claims turned out to be true.  For instance, many who looked directly into the front of the lights suffered temporary blindness.  AN-TVS-3's did indeed emit dangerous levels of ultraviolet rays and ozone.  If overheated or mishandled, the lamps were capable of exploding with the force of a grenade.  When weather conditions were ideal, the beams seemed to extend all the way into outer space.

A couple of years ago I spoke with a retired engineer who retired from Varo, Inc., one of the two contractors that designed and manufactured these lights.  He said that the AN-TVS-3 program was considered "Top Secret" in the 1960's, and the team that worked on the lights always operated behind locked doors separated from the other design groups at Varo, Inc.  Recently, I traded emails with a US Army veteran who operated these lights in the 1960's.  He confirmed that the lights were considered "Top Secret" for a time, but then they became public knowledge after an article in Reader's Digest disclosed the existence of the US Army's "super high intensity xenon lights".  After that, the lights were occasionally put out for public exhibitions.

Several AN-TVS-3's were sent to Vietnam for testing.  According to Army reports that are now declassified and available on the internet, AN-TVS-3's were aimed up into the night skies over operational areas and they provided illumination sufficient to read a newspaper 20 - 40 kilometers away.  The US Army also used the lights to orient and guide aircraft pilots up to 100 kilometers away.  In forward areas, the lights were used for base perimeter protection, to direct artillery fire, and sometimes to disorient enemy solders.  At some point, the lights were equipped with infra red filters for use with early night vision technologies.

A 1970 Bell Laboratory report that I obtained from the internet discusses the feasibility of using AN-TVS-3's as ground beacons to help astronauts aboard the Skylab Space Station visualize targets on earth.  Following extensive calculations, the study concludes that these searchlights were plenty bright enough to be seen from orbit, thereby confirming that the beam from an AN-TVS-3 could easily reach outer space.

After Vietnam, the US Army decided that visible spectrum searchlights were a liability, since shedding white light on a battlefield provided illumination for both friendly forces and enemy combatants in equal measure.  Modern night vision technologies made it possible for US military forces to function without artificial lighting and this gave them a huge advantage over enemies who did not have such technologies.  By the late 1970's, many AN-TVS-3's were surplussed.  Most of the remaining searchlights were sent to NASA to illuminate Apollo rockets on the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center.

After the US Army decided that it did not need big searchlights anymore, several AN-TVS-3's were sold to the British Army, which continued to operate them for many years.  Veterans of the last NATO military searchlight unit maintain a fascinating website at .  Prior to disbanding in the 1990's the 873 Movement Light Squadron Royal Engineers and their AN-TVS-3's were deployed all over Europe to provide illumination for disaster, rescue, and ceremonial events.

Until the termination of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, a joint NASA/USAF program deployed over 100 of these searchlights to illuminate numerous launch sites as well as several 10 mile long emergency landing strips in California, Florida, Australia, and Morocco.  At the emergency landing stips, 4 lights were positioned at each end of the runway in pairs so that there would be always be lights at the rear of the aircraft no matter which way it landed.  Beginning in the 1990's, NASA/USAF phased out their liquid-cooled AN-TVS-3's and replaced them with more efficient air-cooled units that were not quite as bright. 

I purchased my first AN-TVS-3 (blue in color) from Dick Cruse, an advertising searchlight operator in Conroe, Texas.  Dick had acquired his AN-TVS-3 along with 4 other "parts lights" (in poor condition) from a used car dealer in Oklahoma.  The car dealer apparently got the lights originally at a surplus sale because all the lights had markings from "Cape Canaveral USAF Reservation" .  Dick never got the light working.  For 20 years or so, Dick focused on other projects while the blue searchlight sat under a thick layer of dust in a shed on Dick's property. 

One day, Dick got a visit from a prominent University of Houston physicist who had heard about Dick's searchlights and wanted to purchase a parabolic reflector for his research lab.  Dick directed the physicist to the AN-TVS-3 parts lights that were sitting in the weeds behind his shed.  Apparently, AN-TVS-3 reflectors are highly desirable because they are plated with Rhodium, a very rare and expensive metal that is much more durable and much more efficient than chrome.  Unable to get such a reflector anywhere else in the civilian world, the physicist took the AN-TVS-3 reflector and used it to conduct some groundbreaking superconductor research.  That physicist, Paul Chu, went on to win a Nobel Prize. 

When I told Dick that I was looking for a big light to mount on my firetruck, he took me to his shed and showed me the blue searchlight.  He told me, "If you want a big light, a really REALLY big light, then they don't get any bigger than this.  If you manage to get this thing working, then you can shine a damned beam into outer space!"  He offered to sell me his AN-TVS-3's, perhaps with the expectation that I too could use them to earn a Nobel Prize. I drove away with the blue searchlight and the remains of all four parts lights.  Last I heard, Dick went to the North Sea where he served as cook on one of the fishing boats featured on the reality cable show "Deadliest Catch".

It took two years to get the blue searchlight working.  First, I had to find an affordable 400hz generator powerful enough for the light.  My first attempts to use an Army surplus gen set only led to several months of frustrations and failures.  Then, I tried to modify an inexpensive arc welding generator, but that generator proved too weak.  Finally, I purchased a diesel 70KW ground power unit that was being used to power up big airliners at Hobby Airport in Houston.  It was not cheap, but at last I had a reliable power supply with enough juice to drive 2 or maybe 3 big searchlights.

The next big challenge was finding the right coolant for the light.  Since both the anode and cathode of the lamp share the same cooling system which routes liquid through both the positive and negative sides of a very high voltage system, conventional water/antifreeze solutions shorted out the light and prevented ignition.  I tried to buy the coolant recommended in the technical manuals, but no vendors wanted to sell me government-spec coolant in small quantities.  Apparently, NASA and the Army purchased the stuff in 4000-10,000 gallon batches.  All I wanted was a few measly gallons.  I found nothing but dead ends for a while.  Finally, I learned that my AN-TVS-3 xenon lamps are very similar to the (smaller) liquid-cooled xenon lamps used in IMAX theater projectors.  So, I followed IMAX recommendations and mixed pure ethyl glycol with lab-grade deionized water to create my own home-brewed non-conductive coolant.  It worked!  

That first night, I operated my AN-TVS-3 on the driveway next to my house for almost an hour before my neighbor called the police.  The police evidently called the FAA.

This is me setting my neighbor's tree top on fire.

This is me moving the light around the sky and feeling like I was waving the finger of God.  I probably should have known that I was too close to Bush Intercontinental Airport to wave the finger of God around while all those aircraft were trying to approach the runway.  The nice FAA people explained to me about the 10 mile radius federal "air exclusion zone" that surrounds all major airports.  Well feds, why don't you try to exclude THIS!

This photo shows the light oriented straight up toward the sky with the bottom service cover removed.  Exposed are the rather complex electronic controls, ignition systems, and cooling system.  There certainly are a lot of moving parts for a device that is basically nothing more that a great big flashlight!  The small gauge wiring is Teflon coated and each wire is carefully marked with coded numbers that correspond with the large schematic etched on the inside of the service cover.  The large gauge wires are wrapped in layers of asbestos and silicone.  The entire chassis is solid aluminum, as are the housings.  All fasteners are stainless steel.  The electronics remind me of early space program technology.  Very heavy duty and very neat.  I'm told that cold war military electronics were built to survive the worst possible conditions, including nuclear war.  Nice to know that my lights will still be working no matter how bad things get.  Apparently, I will still be able to light up the night sky even after the zombie apocalypse.

About three or four years into my searchlight truck project, I started to worry about replacement parts.  By that point, it was clear to me that the project was going to require a substantial investment of both time and money.  The searchlight I had chosen for the project, the AN-TVS-3, was freaking awesome to be sure, but it was also a model that was long ago discontinued. As far as I knew at the time, I was the only civilian in the world operating this model searchlight.  So, obviously, there seemed to be no civilian aftermarket for parts.  I began to scour the internet for military surplus lights and parts.  Eventually, I stumbled onto three intact lights for sale in San Jose, California.  They were US Army lights, complete with lamps, and still in their original configuration.  An advertising searchlight operator had purchased them over 20 years ago and, just like Dick Cruse, he had never got around to starting them up.  They were low-hour lights, with only 12 hours, 5 hours, and 2 hours of operating time on their meters respectively.  They must have been virtually new lights when placed into surplus, but time had not been kind to them since retirement.  After sitting outside in the elements for over 20 years, they exhibited considerable damage from weather, small animals, and vandals.  Still, these were virtually complete units, and two of the three lights had decent lamps.  So, I purchased all three lights and shipped them to Texas to join my fleet.

Around the time I purchased the San Jose lights, I got a lead that eventually put me in contact with George Bieman, who was the supervising technician who oversaw NASA's fleet of AN-TVS-3's in Florida.  George turned out to be a great resource for all my unanswered questions.  He spent many hours with me on the phone providing invaluable advice on operating and maintaining my lights.  Without his assistance, I may have gotten discouraged and quit my project.

My next big break came in 2012 when I was contacted by Neal Strickberger, a guy in San Francisco who found my website through Candlepower Forum, a chat site for people who share a fetish for high powered flashlights ("flashaholics").  Neal is an investor, engineer, artist, and renaissance man who located a large cache of AN-TVS-3's in an industrial salvage yard in Pennsylvania.  Neal and I combined our resources to purchase the lot of 10 searchlights plus pallets full of OEM replacement parts.  Neal took possession of the lights and I took a portion of the spare parts.

This is Neal and his lights at his Treasure Island Hangar/Art Studio:

Neal is some kind of organizational, mechanical, and electronic genius, so when he put his lights in operational condition, he also resolved most of the remaining technical problems that I had with my light.  For instance, he figured out how to put anticorrosive additives into the coolant formula.  He also started some kind of searchlight nerd club that developed a way to automate AN-TVS-3's with 24 volt scooter motors so that the beams can be remotely controlled by iPads and iPhones.
He took his lights to Burning Man in 2013 and 2014, and I think there are some good Youtube videos of his searchlight beams over the Playa. Neal also does artsy stuff with his lights over San Francisco Bay.

My last big worry concerned lamp replacements.  Uncle Sam paid $6,000 apiece for those 20KW xenon lamps back in the 1960's.  Superior Quartz Lamps Inc., the company that made all the original lamps, hasn't made any 20KW xenon lamps since the military stopped ordering them many years ago.  But, they offered to custom manufacture a few lamps for me for about $20,000 a piece.  Ugh.  So, I obviously could not afford new replacement lamps.  According to the spec sheets, the service life of those lamps is only about 200 hours under ideal conditions.  I did not expect to get that much service from my 3 well-used lamps because, even if some of my lamps had logged low hours, they were all still over 40 years old.  What was I to do after my 3 lamps reached the end of their lives? I had to find a supply of lamps somehow.  Starting in 2012, Neal and I devoted a lot of effort to finding all the lamps that might still be floating around in the surplus market.  By shear luck, and with some help from a newly discovered AN-TVS-3 owner in North Carolina, Richard Kohl, I found several brand new lamps for sale.  On Ebay!  

In 2014, George Bierman notified us that NASA/USAF decided to "demilitarize" (destroy) all 98 of their decommissioned AN-TVS-3's that had been pooled in Florida after the demise of the Space Shuttle Program.  Tragically, none of the lamps from those units were saved.  Then we got a lucky break.  The NASA facility at Edwards AFB in California had 16 lights that were also destroyed, but not before somebody removed the lamps and placed them into the government surplus liquidation system.  I placed a winning bid on the lot of 16 lamps and, soon after, Neal and I met at Edwards AFB to divide them up.  Since all the Edwards lamps had been recently removed from active service lights, they were mostly in pretty good shape.  Finally!  I had all the parts I needed to keep my AN-TVS-3's going for my lifetime and maybe beyond.

Now that all the NASA/USAF lights are gone, there must only be a handful of operational AN-TVS-3 searchlights remaining from the original inventory of 200.  We know of a city in Alabama that acquired four lights from the US Army via Intergovernmental Surplus Property Transfer, and they use them to draw attention to special events.  We are in frequent contact with Richard Kohl in North Carolina who often fires up his AN-TVS-3 at local charity events.  Neal has about 9 lights in operating condition.  I have 4.  Other than that, we know of no other active AN-TVS-3 Searchlight operators.  There are a number of static display AN-TVS-3's in museums throughout the USA and Britain.  But, as far as we know, none of the museums are actually operating their lights.  I personally parted out 4 lights and I am personally familiar with another 30 or so junked or parted out lights.   When we total up the numbers, I think that we have accounted for almost all of the lights.  Are there any more out there in good condition?  Doubtful.  But, maybe.

Many of us who lived in the 1960's and 1970's remember seeing big WWII carbon arc antiaircraft searchlights in use for advertising and special events on a fairly regular basis.  They were pretty common back in those days because so many of those 60 inch lights were manufactured during the war, over 20,000 in all.  After the war, most of those lights got sold cheap to anybody who wanted to shine a big light in the sky.  Evidently, a lot of people wanted to shine a big light in the sky.  That iconic image of searchlight beams shining in the sky at celebrations and grand openings was a direct result of war surplus searchlights flooding the civilian market after WWII.  There are still abundant parts and supplies for those big WWII lights, if you know where to look.  Sadly, those WWII lights are all over 75 years old now and they (as well as the people interested in maintaining them) are becoming rarer with each passing year.  Thankfully, there are still a small number of hobbyists who are actively restoring and preserving 60 inch carbon arc searchlights for future generations.  See

So, who is going to preserve AN-TVS-3's, the more powerful lights that replaced the 60" carbon arc's?

I guess that'll be me, Neal, and Richard.  anyone else out there?

Here is some background information on the truck:

Historic 1970 Seagrave Custom Canopy Cab 1000 gpm triple combination pumper.  This rig served the Jackson, MI Fire Department from 1970 until it was removed from service in 1998.  I purchased this truck on Ebay in 2005.  Then, I flew up to Michigan during Christmas break that year and drove it through a snow storm home to Texas.  

Although the design of this truck was obsolete by 1970, the canopy cab design itself was revolutionary when it was introduced 50 years earlier.  Early motorized fire apparatus had open cabs that exposed drivers and crews to the elements.  Firefighters typically rode on sideboards and tailboards.  Seagrave sold thousands of custom canopy cab rigs like this one by touting the improved comfort and safety of its design, which provided a wide rear-facing bench for 4 crew members under the canopy.  The body style of my rig, introduced in 1951, was called the "70th Anniversary Series".  These rigs were very popular for many years and the design survived with only minor improvements for 19 years.

Beginning in the 1950's, more and more fire departments began purchasing trucks with modern "cab forward" designs, which created more crew and storage space by placing the driver and officer's seats ahead of the front wheels.  By the late 1960's, nobody was ordering canopy cab trucks anymore, so Seagrave shut down it's 70th Anniversary Series production line.

Then, Seagrave got one more order for a canopy cab truck.  The Fire Department of Jackson, Michigan, which operated a large number of Seagrave Canopy Cab rigs, wanted to preserve the uniformity of its fleet.  JFD ordered this truck in late 1969.  Seagrave had to assemble the rig by using spare parts from their parts bins.

My truck was the very last "70th Anniversary Edition" rig produced.  Several historical publications confirm that this rig marks the transformation of custom fire truck design from the old style traditional cabs to modern era cab forward designs.  This is how the truck looked when it was delivered in 1970.

Photo Credit:  "Photographic History of Seagrave 70th Anniversary Series" by Walt McCall.

From a driver's perspective, this truck is much more fun to drive than the big new cab forward rigs that I drive for the VFD.   Handling is superior because of better weight distribution.  It feels more like a big car than a truck.  Visibility is not so good because it is hard to see around that big long nose which was designed to house the original V12 gasoline engine. Sometime in the 1980's, JFD replaced the gas V12 with a huge smoke-belching Detroit Diesel 8v71.  It would be an understatement to say that this is a torquey engine.  Under throttle, this truck pulls like a locomotive.  No wonder this big green Detroit Diesel motor was the preferred powerplant for tanks, armoured personnel carriers, big boats, and Greyhound busses through the 1990's.  Unencumbered by emission controls, the Detroit's two stroke engine noise is deafening. If you remember the brutal noise that city busses used to make before the EPA began regulating municipal vehicles, then you can image how manly this fire truck sounds.  My kids have always called this rig "The Beast".


For several years my kids and I drove The Beast to parades, parties, and special events.  Most every child and a lot of adults in our neighborhood got a ride at one time or another.  My neighbors got used to the sound of the sirens that blasted every time a new passenger pushed on the irresistible dash buttons.  We traveled to several fire truck musters and motorcycle club ride ins.  My daughter's select softball teams adopted the truck as a mascot and it went to tournaments all over Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  

My boss asked to use the truck as a part of his re-election campaign.  The first time he ran against an opponent, my boss rode The Beast to victory.  Four years later, the electoral mojo was apparently depleted from The Beast because my boss was defeated at the polls.  A few months later, I was out of a job.

Nobody ever again asked to use The Beast for an election campaign.  

Sometime in 2010, I decided to restore The Beast.  That was about the same time I became interested in searchlights (see above).  It seemed like a good idea at the time to combine my interests in old fire trucks with my new interest in searchlights by creating a full size copy of my favorite childhood toy.  The idea was to copy the Tonka Searchlight Truck shown above.  

Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into.

The first problem with The Beast was the rust.  All those winters in Michigan were tough on this poor truck.  By the time I removed all the rusted parts, there was very little truck remaining...

Thankfully, I was befriended by Mark Griggs, a professional welder/artist who operates a business called "The Metal Shop" in North Houston.  Bit by bit, Mark designed and built a replacement body specifically configured for my searchlight.  Notice the "space frame" made of square tubing.  This body is much much sturdier than the original body, which was nothing more than sheet metal panels bolted together.  

After many months, the new body took shape.  I got The Beast back to my shop and began to engineer the generator and light setups.

By 2013, The Beast had new wheels, new tires, new brakes, new radiator, new starter, new 320 amp alternator, new electricals, and a new automatic transmission.

Getting the generator mounted and working properly was a huge feat.  Getting the searchlight to operate just like the Tonka Toy required a lot of engineering prowess.  Unfortunately, I am not an engineer and I have very little prowess.  So, the project bogged down for several years

In 2014, my wife and I moved out of the city and got a place in the country where we were able to spread out a bit and keep some animals.  I built a shop to accommodate the searchlight truck project and my other pumper.   Now that we were far away from airports, I was able to exercise the searchlights without having to worry about federal SWAT teams fast roping down on my driveway to arrest me.

Through the years, I continued to work on my 1937 Seagrave Triple Combination Pumper, shown below.  This is where I spent a lot of my time and money that was originally intended for the searchlight truck project.  Someday I might put together a page on this truck. 

My searchlight collection grew in 2015 when I acquired some US ARMY 24" xenon lights.  These are Vietnam era AN VSS 1's.  They have adjustable beams over 150 million candlepower.  These lights were mounted on the barrel of tanks.  They also mounted them on the back of jeeps.  Not sure what I am going to do with these, but I'm sure I will find something.  Maybe there is some room on the back of the searchlight truck for a couple of these.  I'll go ask Mark...

December 2016: The beast is back home after a few months at Mark Griggs' Metal Shop.  Two AN-VSS 1 tank lights are installed at the rear of the truck on their original mounts.  The AN - TVS 3 primary light is mounted on a modified turntable from a WWII vintage carbon arc antiaircraft light. It can rotate 360 degrees.  Power is transmitted into the light via heavy duty slip rings. 

Warning lights are all mounted up.  Excessive, I know, but this project is all about excess.  In addition to the Federal Q mechanical siren, the rig has a vintage PA100 electronic siren with two speakers, two emergency vehicle "stutter horns" and two big-rig air horns.  No doubt this will be the most obnoxious truck in the parade.  In order to run all this electrical stuff, I will probably have to have four house batteries.  I also have the option of adding an additional alternator under the hood.  This can be done after paint if necessary.  When stationary, the 70kw AC generator will supply a 12 volt power supply to recharge the batteries.

I will be testing the lights after the holidays.  No need to make it neat because everything has to be removed for paint.  For now, I will just slop together the wiring.  A lot of details will be addressed after the body is painted.  Perhaps 2017 will be the year I finally get the Beast painted.

For the first time, all the equipment is mounted on the truck and I can see what the profile will look like.  This is the truck in travel configuration.  I plan to paint the truck in its original Jackson FD colors, red on the bottom and white on the top.  The searchlights will be painted grey.  Red vinyl covers will protect the lights when in transit.  Mounted equipment includes 4 "Circle D" lights with 500,000 candlepower aircraft landing lamps, 2 yellow "Circle D" power outlets attached to 100' cords that are stored on internal retractable cord reels, 4 100' power cords on portable reels, a 5 gallon jerry can for spare diesel fuel, and a full complement of extinguishers.  The rectangular grill under the canopy cab window is the radiator grill for the transverse-mounted generator.  Power supplies and other electronics to run the searchlights are mounted under and behind the passenger seat.  A powerful electronics cooling fan blows out of the exhaust vents behind the passenger door.  The forward cabinet contains two batteries.  The forward cabinet on the driver side has room for two more batteries if needed.  The rear cabinet is full-width storage.

The reason I have not updated this site in a couple of years is shown below.  In 2014, this 1952 ALF was donated to my VFD.  It was in pretty rough shape when we got it.  So, naturally, I volunteered to restore it.  It took two full years, but now that restoration is nearing completion.  The full story is on my Facebook page, "Parade 18".  Now that the ALF is out of my shop, I can start to devote some attention to the Searchlight Truck project again.

This damn fender is giving me fits.  All other metal fabrication is complete.  The truck is 100% rust free and straight except for the passenger front fender.  Mark and I have tried everything we can think of to get it aligned.  However, nothing we do seems to work.  This fender is what professional body repair men call "katywumper".  One way or another, this fender has to be straight before this thing goes to paint.

I found this photo in an old history of Jackson FD.  IT seems to explain why the passenger front fender is so messed up:

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