First of all, I hate partisan politics. There are too many times when it gets in the way of the nation’s—any nation’s—best interest. Second, while I knew the recent budget battle that raged on Capitol Hill was going to go down to the wire, I had good money that said a resolution was going to be reached at the eleventh hour, thus averting “sequestration,” the automatic implementation of pre-determined budget cuts that were designed to be so harsh, both political parties would work hard to come up with mutually agreeable ways to avoid them. Well, I was wrong. The parties never reached an agreement on how to trim spending by the March 1 deadline, so the slash-and-burn consequences of sequestration took effect.
Sequestration calls for some pretty ugly spending cuts to a variety of U.S. government operations, including a reported $637-million reduction in the FAA’s $15 billion fiscal 2013 budget. In addition to furloughing some of its employees, the FAA said it would have to cut funding to 189 of its 251 civilian-staffed air traffic control towers by April 7. In other words, close them.
The towers that were selected for closure had fewer than 10,000 commercial operations, and less than 150,000 total operations per year. However, any of those airports could file an appeal to keep its tower funded, but only a few were successful in doing so, leaving 149 contract towers on the chopping block.
This news makes me nervous. And I’m not alone. I put some calls in to some of my friends around the country who drive police helos. All fly in areas where at least one control tower they normally have to talk to made the closure list. And all said that they aren’t happy about it.
To begin with, any airport that has a tower probably got it because it handles such a large volume of traffic, it needs an FAA referee. Take Martin State (MTN) outside of Baltimore, Md. It has a witch’s brew of state police medevac aircraft, city and county police patrol helicopters, a flock of Air Nation Guard A-10 attack jets, military cargo planes, business jets, turboprops, and small private airplanes based there, plus a large mix of transient aircraft trying to circumnavigate the restricted airspace around Washington, DC. Highly experienced pilots are flying some of the aircraft in that total mix. But some folks flying those aircraft have less time in the air than a package of deli meat has in my refrigerator. And while taking off and landing amid that kind of traffic can be challenging enough, I’m equally concerned about what it will be like to conduct missions in close proximity to an environment when there’s no FAA traffic cop in the tower.
Personally, I always found it more comforting to be working a call near an airport with an air traffic controller vectoring traffic away from me, as opposed to having to self-announce every 2-3 minutes near an airport without one. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t maintaining a vigilant scan while being handled by ATC. I’m just saying that it was nice to have another set of trained eyes—and a radar scope—helping to keep me from exchanging paint with another aircraft.
The issue, as I see it, is trying to safely do something abnormal around people who are used to everything being normal. The last time I checked, there were more than 280,000 airplanes registered in the U.S., but only around 11,000 helicopters (not including military aircraft). That alone makes rotorcraft the oddball of the airways. That huge fixed-wing community is used to working an uncontrolled airport by a standard set of pattern rules. So, they tend to look for other airplanes flying the obligatory racetrack pattern, at the published altitude, at the usual speeds. That’s all fine… right up until you throw in Air-1 prosecuting a chase that has it yanking and banking in the middle of the downwind leg. Now, you have a Gulfstream pilot trying to sort you out on his TCAS, an 80-hour private pilot who has no idea of what to do, and a tower that has become nothing more than a storeroom for the airport manager.
I’ve been told that other operators, with those same concerns, lobbied local legislators for financial relief, and got it in the form of state funds to run the towers. To that I say, “Fine!” It’ll keep the facility open, and maybe even offer employment opportunities to those dedicated FAA controllers the government could no longer keep on the payroll.
Last month, though, a reader called me an “alarmist,” because I was warning people about eye injuries caused by laser strikes. And while I understood his point, I continue to stand by the evidence I saw that says a laser device injured a pilot’s eye. But just to make sure that I and the guys I checked with aren’t getting all stirred up about nothing in this case, let’s call this column “part one of a two-part series.” The reason is because the tower closures were scheduled to begin on April 7, just a few days before this issue went to press. So, the next time I post my column, some time will have passed since the cuts took place. We shall see then if this tower thing was a big deal or not.