Make us your home page
Instagram

Sequester cuts to close control tower at Albert Whitted

Albert Whitted Airport had more than 86,000 takeoffs and landings last year. At least seven people work there to control traffic.

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2011)

Albert Whitted Airport had more than 86,000 takeoffs and landings last year. At least seven people work there to control traffic.

ST. PETERSBURG — Unless there's a deal in Washington, D.C., sequestration will force the closure of the air traffic control tower at the city's downtown airport next month.

In that case, Albert Whitted Airport would not be a "controlled" airport for the first time since the 1960s.

Airport officials and pilots say that would be a disaster.

Albert Whitted, with its urban location and crossing runways, already has occasional crashes — caused by everything from pilot error to engine malfunctions.

Not having air traffic controllers, officials said, means an increased risk of more crashes.

"It really is a bad idea what the government is doing here," said Jack Tunstill, who has flown planes for 33 years.

Without air traffic controllers, pilots who use Albert Whitted would be on their own.

So would the corporate jets, commercial flights and other planes passing through on their way to St. Pete-Clearwater International, Tampa International Airport and MacDill Air Force Base.

"It removes a critical safety link in the whole chain," said Rich Lesniak, the airport manager, who got a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday saying the tower would close April 7. "And it's very drastic."

Albert Whitted had 86,477 takeoffs and landings last year. St. Pete Clearwater had 124,408 and TIA had 188,295, according to the FAA.

Tunstill, 68, who sits on the airport advisory committee and also is a flight instructor, has already reached out to the mayor and City Council.

Pilots are trained to land and take off on their own, Tunstill said, but air traffic controllers are "that other set of eyes that's not in the cockpit with me."

Dave Metz, St. Petersburg's downtown facilities director, said the city is writing to implore the FAA to take Albert Whitted off a list of 173 airports nationwide that will lose their control towers.

"This is pretty serious," he said. "It could impact use of the airport. The aviation community might decide to use another airport that is controlled."

The 2,500-square-foot tower building opened in 2011, after the federal government poured $3.1 million into it.

There are many smaller airports across the country without towers. But Albert Whitted isn't one that's "sitting out in some field in the middle of nowhere," Lesniak said.

It functions as a reliever airport for the Tampa Bay area, handling lots of small planes and flight students. Tunstill said many pilots rely on Albert Whitted to help them navigate the skies and keep track of rules regarding military airspace.

If Albert Whitted's tower closes, they'll have to get guidance from the other airports in the area — whose first priorities are usually to carrier lines.

And at least seven people — three full-timers and four part-timers — will be out of a job.

Tower chief Mike Belanger has been controlling airplanes since age 18, first in the Air Force and for 18 years at Albert Whitted.

He said it can get chaotic policing the skies in the middle of an overlapping airspace used by two commercial airports, a military base, privates planes and flight students.

Belanger's company, an FAA contractor, has not gotten official word of the closure.

For now, he said, he's working to keep his staff focused on the upcoming Grand Prix race, an event that keeps air traffic controllers busy.

"Up until that letter came out, I kind of thought it might be a lot of political posturing. Now that the airport got a letter . . . I don't know what to think," he said. "We've got a job to do, and we'll do it."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Sequester cuts to close control tower at Albert Whitted 03/06/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 12:16am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Legalized medical marijuana signed into law by Rick Scott

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a broader medical marijuana system for the state, following through on a promise he made earlier this month.

    Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation on Friday that legalizes medical marijuana in Florida.
  2. Line of moms welcome Once Upon A Child to Carrollwood

    Business

    CARROLLWOOD — Strollers of all shapes and sizes are lined up in front of the store, and inside, there are racks of children's clothing in every color of the rainbow.

    At Once Upon A Child, you often as many baby strollers outside as you find baby furniture and accessories. It recently opened this location in Carrollwood. Photo by Danielle Hauser
  3. Pastries N Chaat brings North India cuisine to North Tampa

    Business

    TAMPA — Pastries N Chaat, a new restaurant offering Indian street food, opened this week near the University of South Florida.

    The menu at Pastries N Chaat includes a large variety of Biriyani, an entree owners say is beloved by millions. Photo courtesy of Pastries N Chaat.
  4. 'Garbage juice' seen as threat to drinking water in Florida Panhandle county

    Water

    To Waste Management, the nation's largest handler of garbage, the liquid that winds up at the bottom of a landfill is called "leachate," and it can safely be disposed of in a well that's 4,200 feet deep.

    Three samples that were displayed by Jackson County NAACP President Ronstance Pittman at a public meeting on Waste Management's deep well injection proposal. The sample on the left is full of leachate from the Jackson County landfill, the stuff that would be injected into the well. The sample on the right shows leachate after it's been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. The one in the middle is tap water.
  5. Honda denies covering up dangers of Takata air bags

    Autos

    With just a third of the defective Takata air bag inflators replaced nationwide, the corporate blame game of who will take responsibility — and pay — for the issue has shifted into another gear.

    Honda is denying covering up dangers of Takata air bags. | [Scott McIntyre, New York Times]