A closer eye on the sky
May 27, 2013
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  • Frederick’s airport control tower is a busy place.

    An air traffic controller peers into the blue light of the tinted windows, grabbing binoculars to spot planes. He responds to crackling radio calls, relaying instructions at an auctioneer’s pace.

    Another controller enters weather reports into a computer, records advisories and guides planes on and off the runway.

    Mamie Ambrose is the air traffic controller manning the weather reports. She likes the work because of the quick pace.

    “We were all bored children,” she said, jokingly.

    She has worked at the tower since it opened in May 2012.

    The air traffic control tower handles about 300 to 500 operations on a day with good weather, tower manager Todd Johnson said.

    Controllers guided 108,000 flights in the tower’s first year, which put Frederick among the 20 busiest contract towers in the country. That traffic mostly comes from local flight schools.

    Controllers guide pilots, telling them which aircraft to follow when landing and helping them chart the route to their next destination.

    They also record safety and weather advisories that pilots can check on the radio as well as contact emergency responders in case of an accident.

    Federal budget cuts known as sequestration threatened to close the tower earlier this year, but the Federal Aviation Administration announced in April that it would keep all 149 federal contract air control towers open, including the five in Maryland.

    That was welcome news to Johnson.

    “I’ve been doing this since I was 18, and it’s hard to imagine doing anything else,” he said. “We are all very relieved because everybody here has families and obligations.”

    The FAA and others argued that closing the tower would not present a safety issue because it was so new that pilots were used to landing without one, Johnson said.

    In Johnson’s opinion, that was not accurate, because although local pilots may be accustomed to not having a tower, the airport is safer with one.

    “Without a tower, pilots can do whatever they want to do. With a tower, you have layers built in of separation standards,” Johnson said, “You have the controllers sequencing the traffic in and out of the airport instead of the pilots doing it on their own.”

    It is unclear how helpful the tower is in terms of avoiding accidents and near-misses because data before the tower opened was self-reported by pilots and unreliable. No serious accidents have been reported since the tower opened.

    Additionally, the tower has dramatically reduced the number of pilots accidentally flying into restricted air space around Camp David.

    Between Sept. 11, 1998, and Sept. 11, 2004, 195 aircraft wandered into the protected airspace, according to data from the FAA. Several planes violated Camp David airspace in the following years, but since the tower opened a little more than a year ago, no violations have been recorded.

    It is easy for pilots to get confused because the restricted area increases dramatically when the president is at Camp David, and sometimes his travels are not announced until the last minute.

    Flying into the space carries serious consequences, Johnson said. Military aircraft will escort the pilot down, and he or she can be fined in addition to losing his or her license for a year.

    “It’s not a good thing to have people in black sedans waiting on you when you get out of the plane,” Johnson said.

    Tom Kramer, manager of airspace and modernization at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, agreed that pilots can land in Frederick without a tower, but having one is safer and easier.

    “It’s an extra set of eyes. Pilots really do appreciate having that extra level of protection,” he said.

    “Pilots in general, broadly speaking, really appreciate that tower. … Having it just makes things a lot easier.”

    The airport has been considering a runway extension for more than a decade that would make the airport more attractive for larger jets. However, the project is on hold until the airport can secure FAA funding.

    The extension would allow corporate planes to leave the airport fully fueled, thus increasing traffic and revenue at the airport, city planner Tim Davis said.