April 01, 2013
Credit: John Croft/AW&ST
In the dark of night last February, the pilot of a single-engine light aircraft skidded to a stop on the main runway at the Salisbury-Wicomico County Airport after his gear collapsed on landing. The pilot got out with the aircraft still on the runway, shut off the lights and walked to a nearby facility for help.
An incident that would have qualified as an inconvenience at most small general aviation (GA) airports, in this case could have been disastrous in the rural town 90 mi. east of Washington. Along with general aviation and military operations, Salisbury's control tower (above) handles regional airline flights.
“We knew something wasn't right because [the pilot] never called 'clear of the runway,'” says Bill Penna, air traffic manager at the airport, one of two controllers on duty that night. “We had a US Airways Express Dash 8 that called in ready for takeoff to Philadelphia on the same runway, and we said, 'Something's not right. Just hold everything and we're going to [check] the runway with our trucks.' The ground support guy drove out to look and there was an airplane on the runway. [So] US Airways was delayed.”
The keen intuition of former military controllers like Penna could disappear at a large number of U.S. airports this spring as the FAA halts funding for 149 of the 251 “contract” towers—those staffed by civilian controllers—starting April 7.
Behind the action is the agency's need to trim $637 million from its $15 billion fiscal 2013 spending plan due to mandatory cuts that went into effect March 1 under a federal deficit reduction measure known as sequestration. A note to controllers from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents federal as well as civilian employees in this field, told them that expected savings from the closings will be $32.8 million this fiscal year. The FAA says it will cut funding for 24 towers on April 7, another 46 by April 21 and the remaining 79, including Salisbury, on May 5.
“While we regret the need to cease FAA funding of these towers, we have worked to ensure that the airport environment remains safe as we make the transition,” says the safety agency in guidance to airports published on March 27.
Tower managers at two airports that Aviation Week visited on March 26 doubted the FAA's claim, saying that there had been no discussions at their level about the relative merit of the closures from a safety standpoint, and no coordination or processes offered to begin an orderly shutdown.