Air traffic control tower in North Myrtle Beach prepares for May 5 closure

dbryant@thesunnews.comMarch 27, 2013 

— Perched with an overhead view of the Grand Strand Airport runway, air traffic controller Jack Griffin notices a military plane headed in the wrong direction to take off.

He quickly grabs the radio to get the pilot turned around, back on track and out of the way as another plane approaches to land.

“See, that’s why we are here,” Griffin said after correcting that military pilot on Tuesday afternoon.

But not for much longer.

The air traffic control tower at Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach is scheduled to close May 5, one of 149 control towers at small airports across the country that will shut down as the Federal Aviation Administration cuts about $637 million from its budget because of sequestration.

The FAA, which also is furloughing some workers as part of the budget cuts, announced Wednesday when each tower would close and issued guidance for the transition.

Grand Strand Airport will continue to operate after the control tower closes; other small airports across the country already have been operating without control towers. Some say the air control tower isn’t needed at Grand Strand because of its size, but it’s always safer having trained eyes in the sky keeping watch over a runway that logged more than 50,000 landings and takeoffs last year.

“Would I rather have a tower there? I would,” said Peter Johnson, manager of Barnstormers Flite Signs, a banner plane business that makes up more than half of the airport’s traffic during the summer. “Obviously you always want second eyes up there, but it’s done at other airports.”

Horry County Department of Airports, which owns Grand Strand Airport, has lobbied to keep the tower open, spokesman Kirk Lovell said. Some communities are working with the FAA to assume the cost of keeping their control towers open, but Horry County isn’t one of them.

The Department of Airports and other leaders say traffic will continue to run smoothly at Grand Strand Airport even without the control tower because it’s a smaller operation.

“It’s always nice to have a control tower,” North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling said. “But an airport the size of [Grand Strand Airport] can function well without them. In a rough economy, it makes sense.”

The Grand Strand Airport is a hub for private pilots, corporate jets, banner planes, helicopter tours and a sky diving business and also serves as a refueling spot for military aircraft used by the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. Four air traffic controllers, each with more than 30 years experience, take turns manning the tower from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and will lose their jobs when the tower closes.

The controllers not only guide pilots, but update them on weather conditions. They also monitor the radar and check on beeps that alert them that aircraft maybe too close to each other. If there’s an accident, or if something else goes wrong, the controllers have a quick line to alert emergency responders. During the summer, the airport can handle between 400 and 500 landings and takeoffs a day, said Glenn Ray, the control tower’s manager.

“It is my hope that some how, some way, some one, somewhere decides the safety of aviation in the area warrants having a tower at Grand Strand Airport,” he said.

Once the tower closes, pilots, instead of being guided by the controllers, will use a frequency to announce their landings and takeoffs to others flying in the area.

Ray compared the skies over the airport without a controller to a four-way stop sign on the road where drivers try to figure out who’s going next.

Others who use the airport say it will continue to operate just fine without the tower.

“We don’t need one,” said Aaron Holly, owner of Skydive Myrtle Beach, which has operated at Grand Strand Airport since opening in May. “This airport is really not that busy. We are not concerned about it.”

Two other control towers in South Carolina also are set to close May 5: Greenville and Hilton Head Island.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said last week when announcing the tower closings.

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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