Do we need this control tower?

There is a lot of chatter about the pending tower closures. Yet I don’t hear anyone asking, “Do we need this control tower?”

Immediately after the FAA released its tower closure list, the newly elected Congressman from my district, Denny Heck, issued a press release regarding Olympia Regional (OLM) and Tacoma Narrows (TIW) airports: “This is yet another example of the very real impact that sequestration is beginning to have on the South Puget Sound. I remain committed to replacing sequestration with a balanced approach to debt reduction that won’t harm our local economy or our military readiness. My office is also in contact with the FAA to see if there are any steps that can be taken to prevent the closure of these important components of our regional infrastructure.”

Sadly, this is exactly what I would expect to hear from my Congressman. So I wrote back to Phil Gardner, Heck’s press secretary who sent me the press release, and asked, “Did Congressman Heck ask… do we need these control towers? Where is the critical thinking?”

He told me the staff reached out to the Port of Olympia, which owns and operates OLM, and the port “expressed deep concern about the closure of their tower.” Hardly an objective voice or analytical analysis, in my opinion.

There is no doubt that a control tower delivers added benefit to an airport. But at what cost? There are thousands of airports without a control tower that operate just fine.

In fact, some airports might benefit from a control tower. But I’d like to see the FAA, our association leadership, and the pilot population ask, Do we need this control tower? It matters not if the tower is operated by the FAA or is under contract. The acid test should be need — and yes, within need is safety.

I don’t operate in the corporate end of general aviation spectrum, so I’m quickly over my head when taking that segment of the population into account.

“There are no regulations or insurance policies, that I’m aware of, that prevent any aircraft from operating at a non-tower controlled airport,” said Jon Harden, owner of Aviation Insurance Resources. “Any operational restrictions I’ve seen come from the flight department or corporate policy.”

So the insurance underwriters don’t prevent operations at non-tower controlled airports.

“We can operate where we need to as long as the airport can handle our aircraft,” said Paul Wulfestieg, a fellow Lakewood Rotarian and current Boeing Business Jet pilot. His concern about tower closures focused on the mix of aircraft at some airports. That is a concern I understand.

Another friend of mine flies a Gulfstream globally from the East Coast. He and his colleagues have been tracking the discussion closely. They are most concerned with delay factor. Safety is paramount, but “people fly corporate jets because it saves them time,” he said.

One of his frequent destination is Naples, Florida, which happens to be on the tower closure list. While Naples does have radar coverage, there is a great deal of flight training at the airport and “the volume of traffic could be problematic on VFR days as small light aircraft mix with busy corporate jet activity.”

There’s the second mention of aircraft mix — a real concern from the perspective of the high-end operator.

Ravi, an aviation motivational speaker, commented on a tower-closure story on our website, “I can’t help but wonder if we, the aviation community and specifically GA, are missing a real opportunity in this. Pilots are trained for CTAF, and most GA pilots fly in/out of non-towered airports all the time…and prefer it. Many of these small towered airports serving airlines were part-time towers anyway, meaning that even those airline pilots are familiar with the process.

I see this as a great opportunity for GA to showcase its safety, independent of government systems. It’s a way to encourage more people to fly (and learn to fly) without pressures typically associated with towers. Imagine if our industry leaders responded by saying, ‘We commend the FAA for recognizing how safe general aviation is and its ability to independently operate in airspace shared by commercial operations.’”

There are myriad perspectives in this discussion, far beyond what I’ve discussed here. For that reason, I hope the discussion will someday be steered to asking, “Do we need this tower?”

Work the discussion, airport by airport, rather than with some arbitrary formula, and see where the answers lead. I have no doubt many control towers (both FAA and contract) will justifiably remain open, while others will justifiably be closed.

Critical thought and respectful discussion is what will resolve this issue. No longer should we accept mere band-aids. Will the budget challenges of the U.S. be solved on the backs of control towers? Nope, but our part of the equation starts with a simple question, “Do we need this tower?”


  1. says

    BRAVO. This is the first time I heard this suggested beyond my own rants. I operate in and near Lancaster, PA and there is rarely (really never) any time in the last 5 or more years that – in my own mind – I could justify a tower. I was actually happy when they announced closing the tower.

    Having worked with the FAA on some safety videos, I have learned that critical thinking is something the bureaucrats avoid at all cost.

  2. says

    I view the tower issue from two different prospectives. The first is the example of when airport FSS were closing. We thought it was going to make flying much more un-safe, because weather is so important to the VFR pilot. The FSS were also responsible for coordinating traffic at the airport, yet once the FSS closures, the industry found alternatives that work. ASOS/AWOS systems, and vigilance has shown the industry can change.

    My second point with tower closures, is that why not defund the EPA? They are not as essential as a tower, why isn’t this agency under the sequestration? There are thousands of agencies that need to be defunded, with the FAA tower being at the bottom of the list.

  3. Mack says

    I love airports without towers!

    Basically, towers are just a power grab for airspace that dates from the ’40’s.

    The Airlines got their airspace, and even the Kings and large “caboosed” Queens (the Obamas) got their airspace!

    The real solution for air traffic is to segregate the airlines from general aviation. This is done quite naturally because most of we GA’ers can’t fly at 35,000 feet! Get the airlines on the ground by giving them their own airports! Essentially, that’s already done at Butch O’Hare’s airport!

    Ah yes, get the public to pay for it! Well, just give me a little strip cleared by anyone’s bulldozer, and I’ll land there!

    My idea is, segregate airports, I don’t need wise-crackin’, stinkin’, egomaniac controllers tellin’ me how to fly my plane.

    I definitely got my head out of the box!

  4. Henry Kelly says

    I agree that we should look at each tower, the runway setup, aircraft mix, congestion in the area, times of heavy usage, and use by what aircraft types and affiliations. Not much of that was done. A simple operations profile was created. Not all towers need to stay open, not all should be closed. Some should have had hours of operations cut instead. But there was an ax taken to this not a scapel…As pilots we naturally have to deal with and adapt to change, but we should not excuse or forgive the impact of this gutting or the poor way this change has been managed or implemented. All the pathetic accomodation I hear around this mess makes me wonder how many people realise that this is yet another assault on private flying. Maybe it is easier for some to just lamely accept it rather than be upset by it and fight back…It is obvious that other reductions and program cutbacks could have spread the impact of this FAA “budget crisis”. Remarkable that this cutting is happening so methodically and fast while the government as a whole can’t agree what day it is…I continue to believe that this is part of an effort to further discourage private planes and flying in the USA. As if our population was not shrinking fast enough as it is. Folks who want to can go ahead and rationalize this situation and try to convince themselves and others that somehow all this tower closure and other cutbacks are really OK, and even justified…Closing all these towers won’t matter…Does anyone really believe that??…Anyone that doubts that flying will be more challenging hasn’t maybe had some idiot in a low wing airplane try to land on top of your high wing airplane at a towered airfield and have the bacon saved by a guy in the tower. So a few more accidents and deaths will happen..No big deal unless you happen to be the statistic…

  5. says

    I agree with Ben. Critical thinking is a good thing and the question “do we need this tower” certainly should have been the first question to fully pursue. Rather than simply closing a tower based on the amount of annual operations certainly could have come into play, but it definitely should not have been paramount.

    Safety is of concern highlighted by Jamie. Perhaps the question should have been ” do we need this tower and how would closing it affect the safety of aircraft pilots and folks on the ground”. After all, most of our FAA rules and regulations we created out of accidents or situations that either killed and/or endangered people. Control towers are a huge part of aviation safety in and around our airports. They were put there more than likely, because the FAA felt is was a safety requirement. Closing tower operations simply based on the amount of operations completely ignores the safety issue for its being.

    I have operated for years at non-towered fields and have no problem at all with that. It all depends on so many other factors besides the annual count of operations. Factors such as the proximity of the non-towered airport to major ga/commercial airports, the transitions to/from those facilities, the mix/density of small ga with business ga traffic, etc. These are the topics that should have been looked at instead of the ridiculous blanket, one size fits all stance that we all endure these days in so many facets of our lives.

    I believe this was simply a high profile easy target for our government to use in order to highlight the sequestration issue.

  6. says

    BRAVO, BEN! Someone needed to ask the question of need, and I’m pleased it was you and in “GA News.” Most of us have successfully operated from fields with no tower for years, safely, and even with a mix of traffic and types. Good for you for speaking up!

    All this tower-closure chatter sure points to the challenges of even modestly shrinking the government’s immense size; if everyone who loses some benefit noisily resists, most politicians will be happy to keep the benefit. They can just raise taxes a tiny bit more to cover the cost. Yeah, that should work.

    • says

      Dan; You and most of the respondents agree on one MAJOR issue: How does the “:mix” of aircraft affect safety? I’ll go back to the early 70’s when I operated a small flight school and sales operation at (TEB) NJ, and the “jets ” were just coming in – Lear 23/24’s, Falcon 20’s , Saberliners, Jet Commander’s and a G11 were often in the pattern. Merging with one of these birds was typical,” Cessna 61G, your traffic is a Lear on a wind base for 24, extend your downwind – your number 4 for the airport”. Today, the only “single you might find there would be a TBM or Cirrus. The volume AND mix should be the determinent for what towers remain open or closed.

  7. Steve Delong says

    Your comments are thoughtful. I think the mix of aircraft issue is important. To flesh this out a bit I can cite the two airports I regularly fly from here in Ontario. One is a very busy general aviation field. I have been told it may be the busiest in Canada. Traffic includes student pilots, renters and some private owners. There is almost no nordo aircraft. There is almost always someone else with you in the circuit and on weekends it can be very busy, sometimes with 3 planes on final with others on base and downwind. At this field 99.9% of the aircraft are 172s or similar, with almost no corporate aircraft and the odd twin. There is no tower and in over 20 years of flying there I have experienced few problems in the circuit. This is the result of appropriate radio calls and properly flown circuits. In addition I think most nordo aircraft sensibly stay away.
    The second field is a bucolic country airport that isn’t that busy most of the time but really requires your attention due to the number of nordo aircraft on the field. Most aircraft are low performance singles or antiques due mostly to location and runway layout. Each airfield offers its challenges but due, I think, to aircraft mix and alert piloting there are few problems at either field.

  8. Tom Korzeniowski says

    Air traffic controllers don’t fly our planes, we do. Neither do they “control” them. That’s also the pilot’s job. In places where the airspace is crowded, they oversee safety procedures that are deemed necessary by government. That’s it. They’re handy and useful, sure, but in most cases, not necessary.
    As a revered CFI once observed: “No controller was ever hurt in an aircraft accident, unless he fell off his stool.”

    • JR Waite says

      Nice to see yet another pilot who has no appreciation for controllers. You realize we’re here to keep you safe, right? We’re not here to mess with you, to make your job harder, or to be better/ ‘of more authority’ than you. We have a job to do, a job that has one purpose–to keep you safe.

      Thanks for the appreciation.

  9. Glenn Darr says

    Just for curiosity, how many of these towers to be closed are FAA towers? I see them cutting out the contract towers. Yes, the closures should be done on an airport by airport basis and not a blanket closure just based on number of operations.

  10. says

    Excellent piece, Ben. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Towers are not essential to safety in all cases. My home airport operates well without a tower and has for decades. In our case the key to safety is having a manageable volume of traffic and a mix of fixed wing, rotary wing, and seaplane traffic that can work together safely without the need for specific clearances.

    Lakeland on the other hand is a different issue altogether. Only 14 miles to our west, Lakeland has two issues that make a tower not only desirable, but necessary. One is Sun ‘n Fun. For one week a year Lakeland Linder is the busiest airport in the world. 10,000 – 15,000 operations will take place there in a single week. Most of them with a visitor at the controls. Someone who doesn’t know the area well, is unfamiliar with landmarks, and may not be comfortable flying VFR in a traffic pattern that has multiple other aircraft ahead of them and behind them – all day long.

    The other reason a tower is essential to safety in Lakeland is the mix of traffic. With three flight schools on the field, and a privately owned tactical fighter group operating out of the same facility – a tower can provide separation and order in a way that student pilots may not be able to achieve on their own in a non-towered environment.

    I’m with you on this one, absolutely. The question is not whether towers should be shuttered – the questions are which towers? When? How do we close them in an orderly fashion? And perhaps most importantly, how do we educate the public that safety is our number one priority at all times?

    This discussion will continue, surely. But you’ve raised the bar and brought some real thought to what has largely degenerated into a lot of yelling and arm waving, with very little insight into the issues at hand. Once again, GAN leads the way. Thanks, Ben. You’re a good man to be leading any team.

  11. says

    Two Southern California airports with which I am very familiar are losing their towers, to the detriment of pilots who use them. Whiteman Airport, KWHP, in Los Angeles lies under the Burbank, KBUR, Class C airspace and only a few miles east of Van Nuys, KVNY. Departure to the east is restricted by the presence of the San Gabriel mountains. To the west by Van Nuys airspace, which hosts hundreds of private jet landings and takeoffs daily along with major helicopter traffic. The presence of the tower at KWHP allowed all of these competing flights to operate in a safe and orderly fashion. I doubt that it will be as orderly or safe in the future.

    Fox Field in Lancaster, CA (KWJF) in the desert north of Los Angeles has the restricted airspace of Edwards Air Force Base hearby to the east and the Class C airspace of Palmdale, KPMD, to the south, which sees numerous military instrument practice approaches daily. Few of the military planes have civilian frequencies available in their cockpits.

    Fox Field is the base for a wide variety of slow and low taildraggers up to private jets. It also frequently is raked by high winds, which complicate arrivals and departures for many planes. And it is base to fire-fighting aircraft. Tbe skilled controllers in its tower have kept that mix of aircraft and skill levels safe for many years. It will be a challenge to expect that record to continue when it is every pilot for himself or herself.

    Dick O’Reilly, ASEL, commercial, instrument, light sport

  12. Cardinal Flyer says

    I have heard no discussion about a middle course on tower closures between a fully towered airport and no ATC at all. There is safe and acceptable middle course that is very common in Canada and removes much of the see and avoid problem of mixed traffic at non-towered airports.

    It is the use of mandatory frequency (MF), sometimes combined with Remote Aerodrome Advisory Service (RAAS).

    MF requires traffic broadcasts at all relevant stages of ground movement and flight in a Class E control zone, not just advisories. RAAS adds a remote flight service station to make the calls to, who communicates with all aircraft in the control zone, and who points out all relevant traffic, etc. Some RAAS also have remote radar. It works well. So a Citation on straight in instrument approach knows that the 172 in the circuit is aware of it and vice versa. Pilots are responsible for see and avoid, but at least you always know what to look for and where it is coming from.

    It seems to me that this is a cost-effective solution that retains the essential elements for safe flying.

  13. says

    Ben; Nice piece! Here in New Jersey, we have only five FAA operated towers; Newark (EWR), Teterboro (TEB),Morristown (MMU), Essex County (CDW) Atlantic City (ACY) and Trenton (TTN) the only airport scheduled for closure. Recently, Frontier Airlines has just started service (bad timing?) and is also home to several corporate flight departments and an active community college flight oreinted degree program -not exactly the ideal mix of traffic! It will be interesting to see how this plays out “politicaly” given the fact that Trenton is the state capital of New Jersey.

  14. Otto Keesling says

    If a control tower at the airport prevents one mid-air-collision it has paid for itself/operation for five years. It is kind of like the fireman.

    True there could be a lot of cost cutting at air traffic facilities if the administrative offices were reduced considerabily. We never needed the supervision that we was built in facilities. There were many empires created over the years. Controlling airplanes is a particular skill. Electronic maintenance could have been contracted out years ago. No away should they have been making the money they are. These people aren’t engineers but simply electronic repair people. Plug out/plug in circuit boards.

    • Dennis Reiley says

      Really, preventing a collision pays for a control tower for five years? How? Would that be in federal, state, or municipal dollars? Or perhaps it is in pilot or airline dollars or could it be in insurance company dollars? And why only five years? Aren’t lives valued beyond a certain price.

      There are control towers that are critical for safety and there are those that just aren’t needed. I also don’t see why every FAA tower is more important that any private tower. Some towers need to be closed and others need to remain open but that has not been the issue and it is the only reason that should have been considered.

  15. ManyDecadeGA says

    The answer in many cases is”NO, …we (GA) do not need this tower”. In fact if you simply remote key frequencies to appropriate facilities, for clearance delivery and departure release, as well as for landing flight plan cancellation, and use CTAF, there are many towers nationally that could not be remoted during off hours. Many could even be closed altogether to save money. When you look at the fully allocated cost to keep some of these low volume tower’s open, or for their maintaining 24 hour ops, there simply is no way they can be justified, let alone pay their full way, at least not by GA users. NextGen is going to have to do a lot better on this issue if it is ever going to be affordable by GA, especially when FAA has to shed ATS as a stand alone ANSP, which is inevitable. From grandmothers in Peoria on social security to businesses paying yet higher taxes, citizens are not going to continue to put up with subsidizing a pork laden obsolete FAA ATS system, that has driven itself into a nearly hopeless cost and inefficiency corner over the past 50 years.

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