From the 11th floor of the new air traffic control tower at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, downtown Lakeland peeks above the tree canopy to the northeast, trapezoidal gypsum stacks bulge over the horizon to the south and Tampa’s skyscrapers are easily seen to the west.
And not so far to the southeast air traffic controllers can see — down there near the ground — the top of the 50-foot tower their new 142-foot behemoth is planned to replace this morning when they start operations for the first time.
It’s an impressive sight, but the height isn’t just about curb appeal, Airport Manager Gene Conrad said. It was designed to serve the airport’s needs now and a generation into the future.
When the old tower was built in the 1970s, the runways were 5,000 feet long, he said. The tower placed at the 2,500-foot mark is no longer in the middle and has a skewed outlook of the airport now in 2016.
However, the new tower also isn’t aligned to the middle of today’s 8,500-foot runway either, but the 10,100-foot runway it could have in the future.
It’s not often you build a new air traffic control tower so you make the most of it when you do, Conrad said.
It has been a fast building process, he said, with substantial work beginning last summer. Nine months later with the help of Lakeland city departments, and a long list of contractors and subcontractors, the controllers are ready to set up shop.
Into Wednesday afternoon workers were putting together the final pieces needed to make the $7.2 million control tower operational. The Florida Department of Transportation is covering 80 percent of the price through grants. The rest of the cost will be covered by the airport’s income.
The air traffic controllers are happy with the new digs, which includes office space, a break room, communications equipment and a locker room on the lower floors. Windows on each floor improve the aesthetics of the building on the outside and airiness to its close confines inside.
“It’s a huge difference,” tower manager Frank Lane said as he loaded a built-in black matte bookshelf with manuals in white binders. Lane leads a team of six air traffic controllers for RVA Robinson Aviation, a company on contract with the FAA.
Everything inside the control room is black except the carpet, which is dark grey, giving the impression of a 360-degree movie of Central Florida.
The new tower has better visibility, better equipment and better creature comforts than the aging 30-something it replaces, Lane said, but the visibility is the most important part.
From their new vantage point, controllers will have a clearer view of the ground and the airspace around the airport.
“It gives them the ideal — to coin a phrase — bird’s eye view,” Sun ‘n Fun President John “Lites” Leenhouts said.
The airport celebrated the new tower with a groundbreaking ceremony at the last Sun ‘n Fun Fly-in and a ribbon cutting ceremony will lead the festivities this year.
“They’ll see further across the horizon and they’ll have new technology in there to make them more situationally aware,” Leenhouts said. “If they’re more aware, they’ll be able to help us more as pilots to avoid other aircraft and get better directions to get on the airfield in an expeditious manner.”
The taller tower helps pilots in another way, he said.
The old tower, from a couple thousand feet in the air, could only be seen a few miles out. The new tower from the same altitude can be seen 20 to 25 miles away.
“It’s a beacon in the sky without being a light,” Leenhouts said.
The tower is one of several major projects happening at the airport, but in some ways is the keystone to development plans there.
“Our number one charge is to run a safe facility,” Conrad said, but the new tower also allows for taller hangars at the airport that could house bigger planes and maintenance companies, “so we can drive more economic activity, and create more jobs.”
As Conrad spoke, workers to the southeast were clearing a parcel that will soon become a massive aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility capable of accommodating airliners for which airport officials are looking a tenant.
Lakeland Linder is in the running for a high profile federal contract to house the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Hurricane Hunters” squadron. It will soon be opening a U.S. Customs office, has been upgrading its existing office and hangar facilities, finished work on a paint hangar that can fit planes the size of Boeing 737s and has been extending and replacing blacktop across the property.
Traffic at the airport also has been on the rise for the last five years with 66 percent more takeoffs and landings in 2015 than 2011 — rising to 106,339 in 2015 from 64,160 in 2011, according to reports filed by the airport to the FAA.
“The continued improvements that are occurring at Lakeland Linder are a huge addition to the economic value the airport brings to Lakeland,” Leenhouts said.
“Any good aviation organization would look at Lakeland Linder as a potential home base because of all that is has, it doesn’t matter who they are.”
— Christopher Guinn can be reached at Christopher.Guinn@theledger.com or 863-802-7592. Follow him on Twitter @CGuinnNews.