Uh, oh. Senior Editor Dave Hirschman takes on his boss—Editor in Chief Tom Haines—in this discussion on which is the better airstrip: one with an air traffic control tower or one without.
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 backtaxi to the departure end of the field.
An alternative stop is a bit 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. Like Marion County, Beaufort is a sleepy little single-runway field without a lot of additional 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, 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 about right. See you around the field.
By Dave Hirschman
The traffic pattern at my formerly nontowered home airport used to be a demolition derby.
VFR departures on Runway 05 would find themselves beak-to-beak with pilots practicing ILS approaches in the opposite direction; corporate jets had to find gaps between students practicing touch-and-goes and simulated engine-out approaches; and helicopters, gyrocopters, and gliders only added to the anarchy.
Now, an FAA contract tower has gone up at Frederick Municipal Airport and the new sheriffs have made order from chaos.
As expected, IFR flights are greatly simplified. Departure clearances are more quickly relayed via an airport ground control frequency (instead of a troublesome remote link to Potomac Clearance). Controllers cancel IFR flight plans upon landing, which avoids the tricky two-step of hurriedly cancelling IFR by radio at low altitude, on final approach, and sometimes barely clear of the clouds – all while listening for traffic on another frequency.
But the most surprising aspect of the new tower is how much better things work on VFR days and weekends. Instead of shoe-horning all VFR arrivals into a single pattern (that often stretched out to ridiculous proportions), now ATC splits arrivals into two streams: left- and right-downwind depending on the direction the airplanes are coming from.
Before the tower became operational, local flight instructors had been concerned their students wouldn’t get enough takeoffs and landings. But in practice, the availability of both left- and right-hand patterns gives students more repetitions in the same amount of time, and helps students get comfortable flying circuits in both directions.
Even better from a student perspective is that they practice real-world ATC communications on every flight. And they aren’t subject to the exasperating mush-mouths who used to monopolize the CTAF with their blathering about pizza joints, movies, their latest smart phones, ad nauseum.
My AOPA colleagues and I had worried that the tower would make some of our aerial photography assignments impossible to accomplish at our home field. Happily, tower controllers greatly simplify formation departures and arrivals, and they happily accommodate the multiple low approaches we sometimes require to get still photos and video of subject airplanes in the 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 donuts if your request is extravagant), they’ll just about always say yes.
Sure, it can be frustrating when a tower controller tells us to hold short when there’s a trainer with the flaps down on a one-mile final and a 20-knot headwind, and we know we could safely scoot out on the runway and be long gone in plenty of time to avoid a conflict.
But it’s a small sacrifice because on the whole, whether flying VFR or IFR, things are way better than they used to be.