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Airport tower closure to affect SIU aviation

By Kayli Plotner

Airports nationwide face possible closure of air-traffic control towers because of federal sequestration cuts, and Southern Illinois Airport is on the chopping block.

Starting early April, government funding for 238 air-traffic control towers will be completely cut, leaving those towers to be shut down or find alternative ways to continue operation. Spencer Dickerson, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, said the tower controllers provide guidance to pilots, up-to-date weather alerts, separation instructions and increased safety.

“When towers shut down, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the airports shut down, but it does mean it is a drastic change in the operation and management of flights at the airport,” Dickerson said. “Every airport is different (and) has a different density of traffic, different mix of aircraft, military (and) student pilots.”

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Airport manager Gary Shafer said SI Airport is the sixth-busiest Illinois airport, and operating with such high traffic and no tower to help guide could be chaotic.

“Imagine Route 13 in Carbondale at eight in the morning and five at night when it’s full of cars, and each one of those cars avoids each other by talking to each other on the phone,” he said.

Shafer said only 450 of the country’s 19,000 airports have control towers because of their high traffic density.

“In the absence of a control tower, you’ve got pilots talking to pilots and trying to remain clear of each other, and when you fill the sky in a very dense manner you increase the likelihood that they aren’t able to accomplish that,” he said. “The real concern here is that the skies get so dense with airplanes that pilots will have an increased difficulty separating themselves from each other.”

The majority of SI Airport’s traffic comes from the university’s aviation program, which sends out flights at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and sometimes 5 p.m., Aviation Department Chair David Newmyer said.

NewMyer said these cuts will have a heavy impact because of timing, as April and October are the busiest months for students to fly when visibility is ideal.

“The concern we have is putting up a mix of student pilots without other pilots,” he said. “There’s the problem in the fact that we’re training new pilots who sometimes aren’t really experienced and then we have the situation of they must learn to fly at night and they must eventually learn to fly in poor visibility conditions. The tower is very important for all that in terms of how they learn to communicate in the sky.”

The aviation program’s curriculum requires students to fly in tower-controlled environments in certain courses, which is something the SI Airport may be unable to provide should the budget cuts occur.

“If (students) are not in the tower-controlled environment here, they’re going to have to go find it,” NewMyer said. “The only suitable tower it looks like it will be possible for us to do that will be at Champaign-Urbana.”

Michael Bacha, a junior from Palatine studying aviation, said he would not enjoy flying over 180 miles to achieve that requirement.

“That’s kind of far just to talk to a tower. I personally wouldn’t want to fly all the way up to Champaign,” he said. “If that’s what it takes to get the experience, then I guess that’s what we’d have to do.”

Bacha said, tower communication was kind of scary as a new pilot, but with experience he feels comfortable asking for help and double-checking things such as being clear to land.

“If people want to be a pilot for a major airline, you’re going to fly into airports with towers,” he said. “It’s nice to have that experience now learning how to talk to air traffic control. It keeps everyone on their toes, and it’s safer because you trust them to have another set of eyes watching you.”

NewMyer said the Department of Aviation will look at ways to keep the tower open that would require the airport and the university to share the cost. However, the cost is unknown because the tower is privately contracted through the FAA.

“We will still be able to deliver flight instruction, but the layer of complexity that it adds to our normal training routine becomes far more complicated,” said John Voges, university flight instructor. “I know that our students deserve the best quality training we can provide them, and I know that an air traffic control tower helps us to achieve that objective.”

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