Local Control Tower Closures, A Safety Hazard?

As a Flight Instructor in San Diego, the recent controversy regarding the FAA’s decision to close 149 airport towers across the country is concerning.  The level of safety at these airports has been in question and San Diego is not exempt from these closures, with Ramona and Brown Tower originally set to close on April 7th.

On April 5, the FAA announced the delay of these closures until June 15. A report from NBS San Diego says that “According to the FAA, the additional time will allow the agency to attempt to resolve various legal challenges associated with the closure decisions. The FAA says they’re still reviewing appropriate risk mitigations and extending the closure deadline will give the agency and airports more time to make changes to the National Airspace System.”
The FAA has once again pushed back the closure dates of both Ramona and Brown Tower until September 30th of this year.  This does give more time to figure out what to do in the long term, but what do they plan to do?

On average, there are around 288 flights per day at Ramona Airport, and around 275 at Brown Field.   The majority of the operations at Ramona field are general aviation, and during the fire season, the airport is busy with firefighting operations for all of San Diego County.  “The Cal Fire base responds to more than 400 calls a year. During major wildfires, up to 18 firefighting aircraft can operate out of Ramona. Their movements are coordinated by the control tower.” The control tower was established after three people died in a 1995 aerial collision involving federal firefighting aircraft in the San Diego County back country.

My students and I frequent these airports to practice landings and instrument approaches.  I have been to both airports when the controllers had to turn away planes because they were too busy.  I have also been to both airports when there was nothing going on, and it was just us in the pattern.  My concern is the busy times without a controller to coordinate traffic.

When flying to Brown Field on the VOR A approach, the tower controller coordinates our entry into the pattern.  Training IFR and flying this approach does not allow us a lot of time to coordinate our own entry into the pattern, since we are on with ATC for most of the approach.  Brown Field has a variety of operations including military, international flights and general aviation.  There are a variety of aircraft ranging from high speed jets, military cargo planes to small slow aircraft. Because of this variety, it makes it difficult to separate traffic.  This creates a possibly dangerous situation.

My students and I also fly into Ramona Airport frequently.  They have a lot of flying activity as well.  During the fire season we have experienced how hectic the tower gets when the fire department planes are coming and going.  There are also a lot of students that fly to Ramona that are from other countries and they get confused easily, and without a control tower it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The FAA is supposed to keep the skies safe, and with this decision I feel they are moving backwards. This decision could affect safety, and if safety is in question, it’s a terrible idea!  If the FAA sticks with the new date of September 30th, it will be necessary to implement a safety program for these airports.  If these airports do become non-towered, it will become very important that all pilots brush up on operations arriving and departing from an uncontrolled airport.  Proper radio calls and good communication from pilot to pilot is key, and always “keep your head on a swivel” looking for traffic and exercising extreme caution.

Read my next blog coming soon on proper operations to and from an uncontrolled airport. Let’s hope the FAA changes their mind again and keeps these towers open!









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