Empty Flight Control Tower Feared at Olympia Regional Airport


By Rolfe Boone, March 22, 2013, The Olympian

Veteran pilot and flight instructor Joel Pressly flew around Olympia Regional Airport on Thursday. He checked in with the airport’s flight-control tower before he taxied onto the runway; he checked with the tower before taking off; and during his short flight he checked with the tower about his eventual landing.

The Jorgensen Air Service refresher course on how to fly to and from an airport with no flight-control tower is set for 1 p.m. Saturday. Jorgensen Air Service is at 7825 Old Highway 99 SE, Olympia. The class is free.

But all of that, the guidance provided by the tower to pilots at the airport, is set to go away April 7 as a result of the federal government’s sequestration, the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that are now under way.

The result is that Olympia Regional Airport is set to become a nontower-controlled field during the day, as it currently is at night, meaning pilots largely will be on their own when flying to and from the airport, having to explain to other pilots their takeoff and landing positions, as well as monitor airspace around the airport as they fly.

And that raises some concerns about safety.

To try to improve safety, airport tenant Jorgensen Air Service, a flight school, is offering a free refresher course to pilots about how to operate at a nontower-controlled field.

The class is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at 7825 Old Highway 99 SE, Olympia.

The four-year-old business is owned by Debbie Jorgensen, a flight attendant for Wien Air Alaska in the 1970s, an airline known for dropping off workers along the oil pipeline during its construction, she said. Pilot Pressly will teach Saturday’s class.

Jorgensen, who already has received calls from several pilots about Saturday’s class, described the role of the airport tower as a second line of defense.

Among several of her concerns was that air-traffic controllers in the tower have come to the aid of beginning pilots, talking them down and helping them land when a student on their first solo flight starts to panic, she said.

Another concern is that Olympia Regional Airport has runways that intersect, raising the potential for a possible “meeting” at the intersection, she said.

The Olympia airport is home to private plane owners, corporate jets, military helicopter training, as well as the flight operations of the Washington State Patrol and the state Department of Natural Resources. That activity generates some of the 3,000-5,000 takeoffs and landings a month during the winter, a number that doubles during the summer.

Jorgensen Air Service student Peter Scott of Olympia, 62, who is in the second phase of his solo flight training, said he welcomes the reassuring instructions of “clear to land” from the airport tower. “I’m confident no other aircraft is coming in to pre-empt my landing,” Scott said about those situations. He added that no pilot is infallible.

Pressly, too, said that when weather is poor and pilots have to fly by plane instrumentation only, that traffic will be handled by the flight-control tower in Auburn, an already busy tower.

Jorgensen said she hopes it doesn’t take a tragedy to trigger a change in federal policy.

Pressly said without a tower it’s only a matter of time.

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