Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pilots anticipate danger when air traffic control tower closes

Tim McCarter was in the cockpit of a Korean War-era Hawker Sea Fury, descending toward a runway at Poplar Grove Airport near Belvidere, Ill., when he learned firsthand one of the potential pitfalls of a relatively busy but uncontrolled airfield.

As he made his approach, suddenly, off to his right, McCarter said he spied a small ultralight aircraft flying in his path — about 20 feet from the warbird’s wing.

“You can’t see them,” said McCarter, the manager of Amphib, a Kenosha Regional Airport hangar that supports the Illinois-based owner of a collection of vintage military aircraft. “When you come dead astern, you just can’t see them.”

Such a situation is sure to arise here, McCarter said, should plans move forward to close the air traffic control tower at Kenosha Regional Airport.

In the Poplar Grove example, McCarter said the ultralight was flying perfectly legally, if not irresponsibly. Unlike in a controlled environment, where pilots must establish their position in the pattern, those flying into an uncontrolled airport are urged but not required to announce their presence over a shared radio frequency.

And therein lies a major danger of closing Kenosha’s tower, said Walt Scheunemann, manager of another Kenosha airport hangar, Stick and Rudder.

“It’s a situation where it’s a participatory program, where with the tower that’s a mandatory program, where you have to report entry into the traffic area here,” said Scheunemann, who began using the Kenosha airport as a Gateway Technical College aviation program student in the 1980s, before there was a tower.

Scheunemann said the lack of air traffic control led to a sometimes-chaotic situation that kept him away from Kenosha for several years, until after the tower opened here in December 1994.

With parallel runways and a mixture of take-offs and landings, fly-over traffic and helicopter activity in play all at once, Scheunemann said the tower proved its worth recently, when he was out with a flight student.

“I just believe it’s a safety issue,” Scheunemann said.

The economics of closing the tower are also of concern to airport users.

McCarter said insurers often will not cover operations based out of uncontrolled airports.

“We’re stuck,” McCarter said. “It will probably come down to a matter of whether we can insure the airplanes we operate here, or not.”

With economics in mind, the city’s Airport Commission on Wednesday directed Airport Director Wayde Buck to study the feasibility of having the city take over the funding of air traffic operations, if the Federal Aviation Administration does not reverse course on its national closure plan.

Pilot Eric Woelbing, who rents two hangar spaces at the airport, is an example of the business Kenosha could lose, or gain, depending on what happens with the towers here and elsewhere in the region.

Woelbing said he lives near the uncontrolled John H. Batten Airport in Racine, but he chose to locate his aircraft in Kenosha because it is a controlled airport.

“Absolutely, it’s going to compromise safety,” Batten said, of closing the tower. “Someone’s going to get killed, period. Yes, there are lots of uncontrolled airports that have been operating for years. We generally don’t land jets in those places.”

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