Castle Airport faces risk of losing its air traffic tower

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 26, 2013 

— The air traffic control tower at Castle Airport could close as part of across-the-board sequestration cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration and government agencies.

As a result of the automatic cuts, the FAA's annual budget will be trimmed by 5.3 percent, effective March 1. Put another way, FAA operations must cut about $600 million in spending for the rest of the fiscal year.

Among the changes, the FAA is considering closing 195 contract towers and 43 FAA-staffed towers nationwide -- with Castle Airport's tower on the chopping block.

Split evenly between defense and domestic spending, the sequester cuts -- which have been in the works for more than a year -- would trim $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

It's all part of a plan to reduce the nation's debt, which is more than $16 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

For the FAA, closing the 238 towers would mean getting rid of nearly 50 percent of control towers nationwide. The National Air Traffic Control Association said in December that tower closures would be "detrimental for lower population areas."

It's a move local officials say will impact the safety of pilots and flight students.

"Pilots can't see everything that we see if they have to fly on their own," said Rich Hitt, Castle Airport's air traffic manager. "We're the eyes and ears of the aircraft, and we have a bird's eye of what's going on."

Hitt said the control tower separates aircraft to ensure they don't collide, and communicates vital weather and traffic advisories and safety alerts. The five-person staff handles more than 400 operations -- take-offs and landings -- per day.

It was the tower that airport officials said helped a student pilot crash-land in a field near Bellevue and Fox roads last month after he lost engine power two miles east of Castle Airport.

Castle's control tower ended up on the closure list because it didn't meet certain criteria -- 10,000 commercial operations or 150,000 total aircraft operations per year.

However, Castle Airport's traffic has boomed in the past three months, tripling every month, Hitt said. The airport went from 65,000 total operations last fiscal year to being on its way to hitting about 120,000 by the end of this year, he said.

"We're on our way, and for the tower to go away now puts a damper on the progress we've made over the last two years," Hitt said.

According to Hitt, 98 percent of those flights -- sometimes 10 to 12 at once -- come from Sierra Academy of Aeronautics students. The flight school can't safely run that number of aircraft on Castle's single runway without traffic control's guidance, Hitt noted.

Although some airports, such as Merced Regional Airport, operate without a tower and pilots separate themselves in the air to avoid a collision, it's not possible with the amount of traffic Castle has.

Brian Johnson, Sierra Academy's vice president and chief flight instructor, said it becomes a safety issue when multiple aircraft land and take off from one runway. "When you start getting as many aircraft in the air as we do, it's not possible for pilots to separate themselves," he said.

Johnson said the school is left with two options: cut the number of flights by half or relocate to another facility.

Either way, it's a loss of revenue for the academy and for the local economy. The academy's 70 employees and 150 flight students pump money into the economy by dining, shopping and living in Merced County.

Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County, acknowledged the school's contributions to the economy.

"It contributes significantly because of the contract they manage with airlines around the globe and the people they employ," he said, adding, "Castle will continue to operate, but we're primarily focused on the safety risks that would take place."

The closure would take effect April 1, but officials are hopeful Congress will find a way to avoid the cuts during last-minute discussions this week.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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