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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]

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