BROOKSVILLE — In the distant darkness, a flickering light approached on the runway.
Air traffic controller Bill Horner spoke into his headset.
"The wind is calm," Horner said.
Then he cleared the plane for takeoff.
Moments later, the King Air 200 turboprop came fully into view, speeding by on the runway below. It gently lifted off.
With that departure, the Hernando County Airport entered a new era — the era of controlled airspace.
At 7 a.m. Monday, the airport's new air traffic control tower opened. From the vantage point of the 82-foot-tall tower, U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent and County Commissioner Dave Russell watched the historic moment.
As the sky began to lighten, Horner and tower manager Jimmy Mills shuttled back and forth from one screen to another in the control tower, talking on their headsets and approving another takeoff, this one by Jet ICU, an air ambulance company.
Russell reflected on the long road it took to approve and build the tower, which offers "safety and the prospect of economic development and growth."
A pilot himself, he visited the airport several weekends ago and was shocked to see airplanes coming and going in all directions.
"It was just downright frightening," Russell said.
He told the controllers: "We love having you here."
Until Monday, pilots who flew in and out of the airport south of Brooksville had the freedom of coming and going as they pleased. Now, Mills said, "they have to call us and let us know who they are and what they want to do."
Eighty percent of the funding for the $2.25 million tower came from state aviation grants and 20 percent came from money the airport collects from businesses that lease space in the adjacent industrial areas. The five full-time air traffic controllers are employed by Robinson Aviation and will be paid through the Federal Aviation Administration.
The airport, a former World War II airfield with runways capable of handling large jets, is the centerpiece of the county's industrial parks. Nugent said the tower should serve as a catalyst for growth in a county that is trying to diversify its economy.
"It's exciting times," he said. "I go all over this district, and this is a jewel. I know a lot of people would love to have this."
County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes got to see the historic moment from the opposite view of those in the tower. He was one of several local dignitaries who were on the first flight.
Dukes said he hopes the tower offers business and industry something they can't get elsewhere.
"I'm just looking forward to what the future holds for this airport," he said.
Aviation Authority chairman Gary Schraut, who was also on the plane, described the flight as "neat."
"I sat there looking out at the tower, looking at all the work that it took to take us to this day," he said.
He said he believes the payoff will be new and existing business expansion at the airport.
"I think that when they see that the county was willing to make an investment in the airport, maybe they're not afraid to make an investment in the airport as well," he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.