Monday, March 25, 2013

Do We Really Need All Those Control Towers?

This thing with yanking controllers out of airport towers is way overblown in my opinion. In fact, thinking about it makes me wonder. In the days past when I did a lot of flying, both private and commercial, I landed at a lot of uncontrolled airports and never had a problem either. Arriving VFR you listened to ATIS or just announced your intention to land on Unicom frequency and listened for other traffic. If you were on an IFR flight plan you  would receive your clearance to shoot the approach from whomever had been your contact, typically a nearby radar facility or a center controller. Anyway not a big deal if no tower on the field.
To give you an example of how it worked I’ll refly us through a trip from Burlington, Vt  (KBTV) to Bennington, Vt (KDDH) at night. Bennington is significant as it has a lot of high terrain around it, most of which won’t be visible in the dark ( e.g. two mountains, one 3109 feet the other 3764 feet high). They were only about five miles to the east, with others somewhat lower all around. KDDH is at an altitude of 826 feet, located in a small valley surrounded by higher terrain. After leaving Burlington in the Baron, I was cleared to the Cambridge VOR (CAM) at 7000 feet and handed over to Boston Center. The VOR was 102 miles to the south, a straight shot. At that time the approaches were by GPS or VOR. As I didn’t have GPS aboard, that left the VOR approach. This was a circle to land with a minimum descent altitude, unless it was VFR, of 1740 feet. The GPS minimum altitude the same. When I got about 25 miles north of CAM,  Boston Center me to 5000 feet and down to 3500 feet when 10 north of the VOR. When reaching 3500 feet, I was cleared  again by Center for the VOR approach to Bennington. Now this was almost a straight in approach requiring a 159 degree heading inbound from the VOR. So far, I hadn’t spoken to anyone on the ground at Bennington. I really didn’t need to.(As it was late at night, no one was there anyway). The airport recorded weather was transmitted on 122.8 or the VOR, if it was available . This was what I needed to determine whether I could land VFR or IFR. Well, it was pitch dark night, the runway six miles ahead was visible from the VOR, so this was a visual approach. The runway, a 3700 foot strip of concrete, looked about like a tombstone from this distance. (Probably similar to the deck of an aircraft carrier as viewed from the cockpit of a landing jet.)  The whole setting was a bit humbling considering the mountainous terrain so close by. Anyway the landing was uneventful, as was the departure after picking up my passenger. Again, if you followed the Jeppesen departure instructions, you would avoid any of the dangerous surrounding terrain. The instructions for departing on runway 31, the opposite of the landing direction were to make a climbing right turn direct to the CAM VOR, holding there until reaching 3500 feet in altitude, and then proceed  on course, which in this case was back to Burlington.

Easy wasn’t it? The only reason I would have found a ground controller helpful here would be in the case of pilot confusion or inexperience. Someone watching from the ground via radar, sort of holding ones hand, could help the errant aviator from flying into the mountains. But here lies the controversy. Do I want to or need to have my hand held? I really loved the independence of flying. Not being told what to do at every step of the way, as well as the challenge of learning all the lingo and techniques needed to become a competent safe pilot.

Before I sign off I will relate another *flight I made, this time into IFR weather, to evacuate an injured Lake Placid skier back to Burlington. I got the call late at night, around 2230 (1030PM) or so. As I lived about 25 minutes from the airport, it wasn’t until about 2330 that we were airborne in the Piper Navajo. I had to bring two people along, a nurse and a helper to get the injured party aboard. The weather was typical February stuff: snow showers, windy and very cold. I don’t remember getting the latest Saranac Lake (KSLK), weather ahead of time. At any rate we were cleared from BTV direct to KSLK via the Plattsburgh VOR(PSB) at 6000 feet. One had to stay on course as there again were many mountains around SLK, the highest, Whiteface Mountain at 4872 feet. There were numerous others as well, not surprising as these were all part of the Adirondacks.

Once airborne heading west, we climbed to 6000 feet and tuned in the SLK VOR. The recorded weather gave us some pause as it went something like this: ceiling 300 to 500 feet, visibility in blowing snow ¾ to 1 mile, with wind form the NW at 12 to 16 knots. Could be worse but we would definitely need to fly the ILS approach faithfully, probably to just above minimums. Minimums here were 200 and ½, pretty much as low as it gets. The approach plate called for the approach to begin at TRIKY intersection which was off the Plattsburgh VOR(KPSB). Not having an RNAV was a definite disadvantage here, as it would have saved us a jog up to KPSB. Any way from Plattsburgh it was 18.1 miles to TRIKY and we would be on the ILS localizer to KSLK. So we did all this, while staying in radio contact with Burlington. When approaching the TRIKY intersection we were handed off to Boston Center who cleared us for the approach. This meant we descended to 5600 feet until TRIKY, at the same time being tuned into the (ISLK) ILS approach. Once the localizer needle started to move we turned south until the localizer needle centered and the final heading was about 229 degrees. In three miles we were at ZECKA intersection, descending to 4300 feet to intercept the glide slope. Once the localizer and glide slope needles were centered I just tracked both inbound, utilizing the autopilot which was coupled to the ILS. I know that sounds like a lot to do, but having done it for many years made it almost automatic. We tracked the ILS signals toward the decision point, the middle marker. Before we got there, luckily the runway approach lights became visible and I felt that a landing was assured. Then I called Boston Center to advise them that we were cancelling IFR and would call on the way out. I had filed the departure back to BTV beforehand. We taxied in a few inches of powdery snow to the FBO and were greeted by an ambulance crew with the severely injured patient. After loading the stretcher aboard we departed Saranac Lake for Burlington. There again we were greeted by another ambulance that quickly unloaded the injured party and hustled him off to the hospital.

So, here are two flights, one more challenging than the other, where there were no Tower Personnel at either location. Maybe then, we should make less of a deal about losing some of these services, as I believe strongly that many are really not needed anyway. 

Thanks for visiting. Pilots pay attention to your charts. Keep your eyes and ears open, and stay off your digital distractions. Do all this and you’ll be a much safer pilot, and also have more fun flying. Try it!

*This flight was described previously in another article.

Any comments? Please feel free to, they will be appreciated.