Castle Airport’s air traffic control tower is one of 11 throughout California the Federal Aviation Administration plans to start shut down next month due to automatic spending cuts, according to a closure list released Friday.
They are among 149 contract towers that are FAA certified by not staffed by government employees and will stop operating as the agency trims $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year as a result of sequestration cuts.
Castle Airport’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, the airport’s traffic has grown significantly in the past few months, largely because of Sierra Academy of Aeronautics student pilots. The airport is on target to hit about 120,000 to 150,000 operations by the end of the calendar year, according to county officials.
Jim Price, vice president of operations at Gemini Flight Support, told the Sun-Star recently that losing the tower would mean losing the airport’s military training business.
“We have been contracted for fuel support for all military aircraft, and that requires a control tower,” he said. “With this control tower shutting down, our military business will go away 100percent. Economically, that would have a huge impact.”
Along with losing the military business, the tower’s closure could impact first-responders and the ability to deal with natural disasters, he said.
Above all, officials are concerned about the potential impact on air safety. The tower closures will not shut down the airports, but will leave pilots to coordinate departures, arrivals and other movement among themselves via shared radio frequencies.
Although some airports, such as Merced Regional Airport, operate without a tower and pilots separate themselves in the air to avoid a collision, some officials don’t think it will work at Castle because of the amount of traffic it has.
Brian Johnson, Sierra Academy’s vice president and chief flight instructor, also told the Sun-Star recently that it’s 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.
County officials have stressed that growth and development at Castle is one of the keys to long-term economic health of the region.
“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.
The FAA said it would help efforts by communities that choose to assume the cost of air traffic control services at their airports.
The California closures range from Executive Airport in Sacramento to Brown Field in San Diego.
Also on the list are Castle Airport in Merced County, Salinas Municipal in Monterey County, Fullerton Municipal in Orange County and Oxnard Airport in Ventura County.
Two control towers in Riverside County — Riverside Municipal and Ramona — were listed, along with control facilities at Victorville’s Southern California Logistics Airport in San Bernardino County, Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles and Gen. William J. Fox Airfield in northern Los Angeles County.