Groton airport users say control tower provides level of safety

Groton - Private and military users of the Groton-New London Airport say the loss of the air traffic control tower could have serious safety implications.

The Federal Aviation Administration this week announced $600 million in proposed cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year because of an impasse that would lead to across-the-board cuts in federal spending. Part of the FAA's proposal is to close more than 100 air traffic control towers at smaller airports nationwide, including six in Connecticut.

"It would be a big loss," said Ryan Gauthier, owner of the private air charter company Action Airlines and two flight schools at the Groton airport.

"Yes, we could operate without them, but having a tower here is obviously a huge advantage," Gauthier said. "It adds a level of safety you wouldn't have without the tower. We're up just about every day. Any operator within five nautical miles and below 2,500 feet is using the tower."

Gauthier said the biggest advantage of the control tower is having someone watching for other aircraft in the area. He said there are flights coming and going every day, including private planes, charters and military aircraft.

Carl Strand Jr., chairman of a local airport citizens advisory committee, said he thinks loss of the tower may preclude "marginal condition landings," where visibility is at a minimum.

"I think they could probably survive without the tower, but it's not the best situation," he said.

Strand said since the airport does not offer commercial flights, the majority of traffic is charter and corporate, including use by Electric Boat and Pfizer, though much less than in past years. He said there also occasionally are entertainers arriving for shows at the casinos.

Robert Hamilton, EB spokesman, said the company runs regular shuttles from Groton-New London Airport to both Washington, D.C., and Newport News, Va.

Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard, said the tower controls local airspace, a layer of protection that ensures there are no incidents when the military is performing test flights and maneuvers.

Closing the tower could impact operations at the Army National Guard's helicopter repair facility, the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, and possibly could lead to a search for a new location for the unit to conduct maneuvers, he said.

"There could be a possibility that they would stop or we'd look at another alternative," Whitford said. "But for these guys, when they take the aircraft apart to nuts and bolts, the test flight and maneuver is a critical part in the maintenance piece in getting the helicopter ready and delivered back to the user. When you're supporting all of New England, New York and New Jersey, it would impact how fast they would be able to get the aircraft back ..."

Catherine L. Young, airport manager, said there were 35,680 takeoffs and landings last year and about 550 full- and part-time personnel at the airport, including workers at helicopter repair facility. She referred all questions to state and federal officials.

Groton-New London Airport is one of six operated by the Connecticut Airport Authority, and one of three state-run airports with control towers manned by private companies contracted by the FAA. The others are Hartford-Brainard and Waterbury Oxford. The Groton tower is manned daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, said the FAA has measures in place to provide for safe takeoffs and landings, but thinks the closing of towers would hinder operations nationwide.

"The impact is an overall slowing of the system," he said. "The flow control would have to slow down so the remaining controllers could pick up the additional workload."

When an airport does not have a control tower, he said, the work is picked up by a terminal radar approach control facility from a nearby airport.

"There are systems in place. Off-hour flights are already picked up by other elements of the system," Dillon said. "The FAA is always going to operate a safe system. In this case, I believe it is going to be an impact to service levels - not only to these three airports, (but) the fact that you have others picking up work. It will have impacts at airports across the country.

"An airport can operate without an air traffic control tower, but we really want to see these services preserved."

Staff Writer Jennifer McDermott contributed to this report.

g.smith@theday.com

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