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5 Ohio air towers to close due to federal budget cuts

The airport at Ohio State University may be small, but it’s mighty: It handles 70,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

But it’s still one of some 170 airports slated to lose their air traffic control towers beginning April 7 – the result of across-the-board budget cuts enacted by Congress March 1.

Now that airport – one of five in the state slated to lose its towers – is trying to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to keep their towers operating.

“We are one of the top general aviation airports in the country,” said OSU Airport Director Doug Hammon, who says on any given day the airport could handle medical air emergency flights, student pilots or corporate flights.

In Columbus, Bolton Field is also slated to lose its tower. Up north, the Mansfield Tower in Mansfield is also slated to close. Airports in Cleveland and Youngstown have also been targeted. None in southwest Ohio will be impacted.

In all, 238 towers are scheduled to be shut down nationally, with around 170 shutting down April 7, and the rest coming “at a later date,” according to an FAA spokesman. Of those, 195 are contract towers, while 43 are operated by the FAA, according to the U.S. Contract Tower Association.

The FAA last week accepted letters from airports arguing to save their towers, and will make a decision next week on which ones stay based on whether the closure would have a national impact.

Still, the closure of so many towers is dangerous, according to J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, who said towers provide “a second set of eyes, and an extra level of safety.”

“We are extremely concerned about the safety impact of such a move on a single day,” said Dickerson. “We don’t have any idea of how that’s going impact safety.”

For Hammon, it isn’t hard to press the case for why the airport should keep its tower.

The airport serves as a base of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Civil Air Patrol, training grounds for the U.S. Army and U.S. Air National Guard and supports 7,000 medical mission flights flown by emergency medical helicopters each year. Having an air traffic control tower helps those flights take off more quickly and safely, he said.

He argues that the airport is also crucial to educating the next generation of pilots. The FAA has slated to close control tower operations at many major universities that own airports. Doing so, he said, would stifle the next generation of pilots, and hurt the United States competitively, he said, with pilots going to other nations.

“We’re really the only collegiate aviation program in Ohio whose students actually train in a towered environment, which really gives them key knowledge when they need to get out there,” he said.

Dickerson said the decision could have an impact on medical airplanes – some of which are required to take off only from airports with an air traffic control tower – and military missions.

“The military doesn’t want to train at Chicago O’Hare or JFK,” said Dickerson. “We’ve heard from the military that they can’t train at nontowered airports, so what happens to those operations? This opens a Pandora’s Box.”

Hammon said while he’s confident those using the airport will work hard to ensure safety, he sees the possibility for more conflicts on the ground if the cuts go through. “A lot of things happen that people may not think about on the ground at an airport,” he said He said smaller airports in rural areas don’t always need towers – there is less traffic. But his airport, in an urban area, is busier, and the range of aircraft and pilots also demands air traffic control.

“Because we’re at a training ground, we have basic, newest pilots up through the most advanced corporate pilots,” he said. “We need somebody overseeing people and helping them out.”

David Whitaker, a spokesman for Bolton Airport, said Bolton, which serves as a reliever airport for Port Columbus, has submitted a letter to express concern about the impact of closing the tower, but has not argued that closing the tower will have a national impact – a key factor for the FAA keeping the tower open. “We wouldn’t meet the criteria for national impact,” he said.

Currently, Bolton’s tower is staffed 12 hours a day, though the airport operates 24 hours a day. He said the loss of the tower will mean slower processing times for planes flying in and out but the airport “should still be able to operate.”

“Airplanes can come and go safely from the fields without a tower,” he said. ”We’d prefer a staffed tower, but can operate in an unstaffed manner.”

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