Solutions eyed to keep Castle tower operating

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 28, 2013 

The news that federal funding for the air traffic control tower at Castle Airport is coming to an end has prompted local officials to consider alternative ways to keep it staffed.

While closing the tower would not shut down the airport, safety concerns would likely limit traffic as pilots coordinate departures and arrivals among themselves.

Hiring a private company to run the tower is an option, said Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County.

"From a marking standpoint, losing the tower would place Castle at a disadvantage at a time when we were seeing significant interest," he said. "We're going to, over the course of the next few days and weeks, put every option available in front of the policy-makers."

The federal government spent about $450,000 a year to operate the tower, according to county officials. That price tag could be reduced by limiting business hours or other means.

Under deep federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to shut down the tower on April 21.

The tower at Castle Airport is one of 11 in the state and 149 in the country scheduled for closure. Not staffing those towers is the result of a more than 5 percent cut to the FAA's annual budget.

Operations at Castle Airport likely will have to be scaled back without the tower, said Rich Hitt, air traffic manager for Castle Airport.

"A lot of people don't realize how many aircraft are flying overhead of them and being controlled by the tower," he said. "The hazard of flying would greatly increase with as many operations as we have now."

The FAA spared towers serving more than 10,000 commercial flight operations or 150,000 total aircraft operations a year. An operation is defined as either a takeoff or a landing.

While Castle didn't make the cut with just 67,000 operations last year, that number is fast changing.

Airport activity has taken off over the past several months because of the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics, which constitutes about 98 percent of traffic at the airport.

This year the airport anticipated recording more than 150,000 total operations after the flight school recently almost doubled in size. The academy now has 150 flight students, up from

80 last year, as well as 40 employees, up from 20.

The flight school estimates it will bring in $10 million in economic activity for the region this year, up from $2.4 million last year.

"At lot of our staff and students spend their money in the area. And the fuel we use, a certain percentage goes to the county in the form of a fuel fee," said Bob Deklinski, director of airport development for the flight school.

Losing the tower likely will change the way the flight school operates, but it will not significantly affect business, Deklinski said.

"We have plenty of plans and we don't have to cut down on our students," he said. "We'll have to readjust our flights, maybe expand to a six- or seven-day operation. As long as we can adjust our flights and times we can remain pretty profitable."

However, Deklinski said, having the tower does create a "safer environment."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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