Dogfight: Tower or no tower

April 28, 2013

Uh, oh. Senior Editor Dave Hirschman takes on his boss—Editor in Chief Tom Haines—in this discussion on which is the better airport: one with an air traffic control tower or one without.

No more mayhem

Why I welcome control towers
By Dave Hirschman

The traffic pattern at my formerly nontowered home airport used to resemble a game of chicken. VFR departures on Runway 5 would find themselves beak-to-beak with pilots practicing ILS approaches under the hood in the opposite direction; corporate jets had to find gaps between students practicing touch-and-goes and simulated engine-out landings; and helicopters, gyrocopters, and gliders added to the anarchy in their own unique ways. Now, an FAA contract tower has gone up at Frederick (Maryland) Municipal Airport, and the new sheriffs have made order of previous chaos.

IFR flying is simplified. Departure clearances are quickly relayed via an airport ground control frequency (instead of a remote link to Potomac Clearance). Controllers cancel IFR flight plans upon landing, which avoids the tricky two-step of cancelling IFR by radio at low altitude, on final approach, barely clear of the clouds—all while trying to listen for traffic on the CTAF. And instead of shoehorning VFR arrivals into a single pattern (often stretched to ridiculous proportions), ATC splits arrivals into two streams: left- and right-downwind, depending on the direction the airplanes are coming from.

Before the tower, flight instructors were concerned their students wouldn’t get enough takeoff and landing practice. But the availability of both left- and right-hand patterns gives students more repetitions in the same amount of time, and helps them get comfortable flying circuits in both directions. Even better is the real-world ATC experience they gain on every flight. Also, they aren’t subjected to the exasperating mush-mouths who used to monopolize the CTAF with off-topic blather.

My colleagues had worried that the tower would make our aerial photography assignments more difficult to accomplish at our home field. Happily, tower controllers greatly simplify formation departures and arrivals, and accommodate the multiple low approaches we sometimes require to get still photos and video of subject airplanes in an airport environment. If you give the controllers a quick preflight telephone call to let them know what you’d like to do (or maybe a box of doughnuts if your request is extravagant), they’ll just about always say yes. Best of all, the controllers have shown they have a sense of humor. When the pilot of a passing hot air balloon jokingly requested permission to buzz the tower one evening, the tower controller responded with this Top Gun gem. “Negative, Ghost Rider,” she replied in kind. “The pattern is full.”

Email dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

The life for me

Keep your tower, just give me that countryside
By Thomas B. Haines

Towered GA airports have their place, but as infrequently as possible in my flight plans. It seems as if towers are a magnet for higher costs, a longer taxi, and a lot of hoopla.

Two examples: Many of my trips are up and down the East Coast. En route to Florida, I frequently stop for fuel in South Carolina. Florence is a terrific towered airport with an efficient line crew that I’ve visited many times over the years, but the sprawling airport has long taxi distances and posted fuel prices $1 a gallon more than Marion County Airport, a nontowered airport just 19 nm away. On a January trip I stopped at Marion County both directions because fuel was just $4.52 a gallon—the least expensive I could find anywhere in the region, and by a significant margin. Avgas at $4.50 isn’t a bargain, but in a relative sense it is. The price has recently gone up, but the FBO maintains a similar price delta to other larger airports nearby. Marion County has no parallel taxiway, but it’s not a concern because traffic is so light that I’ve never had to wait for landing traffic in order to back taxi to the departure end of the field.

An alternative stop is farther south at Hilton Head, a towered airport with competing FBOs, so you’d think you might get a break on the fuel prices. But no. The cheapest fuel at Hilton Head as of mid-February was $7.37, not including various fees if you don’t take on enough go-juice. Or, you could stop 12 nm away at Beaufort County Airport and top off for $6.10 a gallon full service; fill it yourself and save another 15 cents a gallon. Beaufort is a sleepy little single-runway field without a lot of services, but for me it always brings back memories of a family trip—a first long trip with our two then-little girls on board. We brought a picnic lunch and ate next to a palm tree—the first palm tree my girls had ever seen. Sure, Hilton Head is closer to the golf courses, and the FBOs gleam with marble and stainless steel, but when I’m just passing through I just feel like I’m in the way of the heavy iron at places like that.

There are plenty of other reasons to love small, nontowered airports where you can saunter up to airplanes and peek in the windows to compare avionics stacks, slip quickly in and out with only a couple of calls on the CTAF, and debate with the locals whether your pattern entry was “right” or not. At a towered airport, the guy (or gal) in the cab decides that for you. I learned to fly at a small nontowered airport and for me, all these decades later, that still feels right. See you around the field.

Email thomas.haines@aopa.org.