The ceremony caps a year of improvements at the airport, which began at last year’s SUN ’n FUN when ground was broken for the new tower.
The new 142-foot tower replaces the old 50-foot tower, noted Gene Conrad, airport manager.
He noted that controllers in the old tower couldn’t even see the end of the runway.
“The perspective that they have now is just phenomenal,” he said. “You’re looking down on the airplanes and have a view of the entire air field. It is unbelievable.”
With the new tower, of course, came upgraded equipment, which arrived just in time, according to Conrad.
“Last year we ran a 107,000 operations out of the old tower. We already up 3,000 operations year-over-year this year, to date,” he said. “We’re super-busy right now. It couldn’t have come at a better time to have this new facility.”
The new tower means a more safe airfield, according to Conrad.
“When the original tower was built both our runways were 5,000 feet long,” he said. “Now our main runway is 8,500 feet. One day, it’ll go to 10,100 feet. It’s put in the right location so you can see everything.”
It also will improve conditions for the controllers working in the contract tower.
“During SUN ‘n FUN, there’s periods where there’s 15 to 20 people up in that cab,” he said. “They were in that little cab during SUN ’n FUN. Now, we have this big thing which will help tremendously, so people aren’t stepping all over each other. It has five positions to operate from versus two in the old tower. It’s just a tremendous upgrade.”
Meanwhile, right after SUN ’n FUN, the switch will be flipped on the third solar farm on the airport grounds, Conrad reported.
“Last February we partnered with the Florida Department of Transportation and purchased 32 acres just adjacent to our property line on the southwest side of the airport,” he said. “We’ll have 8.6 mega watts on the airport once this thing goes live.”
What does that really mean?
The airport will receive 2 cents per kilowatt generated, he said.
“At the end of the day, we’ll generate anywhere from $325,000 to $350,000 in credit towards our utility bill. Eventually we won’t have one,” he said. “They’ll write us a check at the end of the year.”
The airport also recently expanded its paint facility, replaced the roof on a giant hanger, and is in the running to be the new base for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) Hurricane Hunter planes. If KLAL wins that, there will be nine new aircraft — and another 100 jobs — based at the airport.
Next on the agenda are new T-hangars for aircraft owners who are now on a waiting list, and the possibility of airline service.
Conrad notes that GA pilots shouldn’t see airliners as a threat to their access to KLAL. Rather, the airline operations will help fund other projects at the airport.
“We’re self-sustaining,” he noted. “We don’t receive any subsidies from the city and all of our revenue stay in the airport. We pay off all of our own debt. That’s important.”
With all that’s going on at the KLAL, the airport is in “good shape” for this week’s fly-in, according to Conrad.
“Even with everything that’s been going on, we are ready,” he said. “I have a great team of people who are passionate about aviation and super-dedicated to what we do. They all push through to get it done.”
Honoring one of their own
The April 4 ceremony closed with a special dedication of the new tower cab to long-time air traffic controller Patrick Austin.
The Lakeland native is a 35-year air traffic control veteran who was hired by the city of Lakeland in 1980 when the original tower was erected. He made the first transmission in the old tower, as well as the last transmission, according to Conrad. He then made the first transmission in the new tower on March 17 of this year.
Surrounded by his wife, Lynn, and family members, Austin noted that the old tower was like “a Model T, while the new tower is like a Rolls Royce limousine.”
Austin is one of six controllers who work year round at the tower. For this week, a whole cadre of controllers — wearing bright orange shirts — will handle traffic for the fly-in.