Local Leaders Worry About Public Safety

Ahead of Airport Tower Closures

Erin Toner
The tower at Timmerman Field in Milwaukee is slated to close in April - Click to Enlarge PhotoThe tower at Timmerman Field in Milwaukee is slated to close in April

WUWM NEWS | Mar 26, 2013

Starting in two weeks, air traffic control towers will go dark at nearly 150 small airports around the country. Among those affected here – Timmerman Field on Milwaukee’s northwest side and the Waukesha County Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration says the closures are part of the forced federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Michael Mayo says he worries about the safety of people living near Timmerman Field. It accommodates more than 30,000 takeoffs and landings a year, with planes routinely flying over residential neighborhoods.
“You have student pilots at that airport, you have some pilots who really (don’t) understand the area when they come into that airport, so you need someone to guide them into there. And that’s the concern because you have a very dense population over there and people think it should be safety first versus trying to save a couple dollars,” Mayo says.

Mayo and fellow supervisors wrote to Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation, urging members to reconsider the tower closings.
Timmerman is what’s called a “general aviation” airport, meaning it caters to public users, such as amateur pilots and corporate jets. Right now, tower operators assist those planes with takeoffs and landings. When the tower closes, pilots will have to communicate directly with each other to coordinate who uses the runway.
Dan Gerard is a flight instructor at Timmerman. He says most small airports don’t have control towers, so pilots learn to fly with and without that extra layer of safety.

“You know the control tower will say, ‘There’s an airplane at 2 o’clock about 500 feet above you, less than a mile away,’ and that helps pilots know exactly where to look to spot that airplane and without the control tower telling pilots where to look, it’s not as easy for pilots to spot other aircraft,” Gerard says.
Gerard says towers also streamline traffic flow, thus minimizing flights over surrounding neighborhoods.
“That’s definitely going to go away when the tower closes. The procedures are gonna change. Pilots are going to have to circle the airport more to get in line to land, whereas with the tower open, the tower can kind of manage that and control the arrivals and departures a little bit better,” Gerard says.

The closures could have an even bigger impact at the Waukesha County Airport. It handles 57,000 takeoffs and landings a year, making it the busiest general aviation airport in Wisconsin.
Director Kurt Stanich says the Waukesha airfield serves plenty of corporate clients.
“For instance, Menards will come in and out every day. They fly from Eau Claire, down to Waukesha and then I believe, to Illinois and Indiana in the morning and they drop off their middle managers, the people who are running stores and things like that, to go in and do work in the area, and then at night, they’ll do the exact opposite trip,” Stanich says.

Stanich says so far, no companies have said they’ll stop using Waukesha County when its control tower closes. However, jets consider the risks.
“They have a program basically where they evaluate the risks of a flight and they assign everything a point value and so if there’s not a tower, that increases the risk portion of their decision and if it gets to so many points, they’ll decide whether or not to actually land there or not,” Stanich says.
Stanich says companies could choose instead, to fly to General Mitchell in Milwaukee or to Madison’s airport.
The Waukesha County Airport and Timmerman Field plan to remain open during the tower shutdown. The FAA says it will begin shuttering them on April 7.

Dan Gerard, the flight instructor at Timmerman, says once the exact dates are known, he’ll schedule safety seminars to inform pilots of the new procedures.

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