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Airport Magazine

FAA Contract Towers Play Critical Role in Recovery from Recent Hurricanes, Wildfires

top story photo The U.S. Contract Tower Association, an affiliate organization of AAAE, applauded FAA contract air traffic control towers and airports for the important role they played in relief efforts during recent hurricanes and wildfires in the United States.

"FAA contract towers are essential in helping local communities around the country recover from natural disasters," said Walt Strong, A.A.E., Director of the University of Oklahoma Max Westheimer Airport and Chair of the U.S. Contract Tower Association. "As we have seen in recent weeks, contract towers and their professional staff, working side by side with controllers at FAA facilities, continue to provide safe and efficient air traffic control operations and serve as a critical lifeline to communities in need."

FAA contract air traffic control towers, operated by Robinson Aviation (RVA), Serco and CI² Aviation, assisted in a wide array of relief efforts immediately following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and major wildfires in the western United States.

For example:

• The contract tower at Scholes International Airport in Galveston, Texas, continued to provide weather updates and remained operational - even when the airport was closed - to support rescue and relief efforts during Hurricane Harvey. The tower also extended operating hours to support the Texas Air National Guard.

• The contract tower at Easterwood Airport in College Station, Texas, expanded its operations to 24 hours a day between August 29 and September 5, allowing the U.S. Air Force to stage a number of aircraft at all hours of the day and night in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

• At Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport in Texas, the contract tower facilitated critical U.S. Army and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol operations.

• The contract tower at New Braunfels Regional Airport in Texas operated throughout Hurricane Harvey, providing services to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helicopters staged nearby. Helicopter operations at New Braunfels tripled during the week after the storm.

• Despite losing commercial power and having more than half the runway covered in water, the contract tower at Sugar Land Regional Airport in Texas served as a staging ground for FEMA and National Guard troops from multiple states. In the wake of the storm, military operations at the airport - including a helicopter carrying Vice President Mike Pence - were five times higher than the airport's annual military operations.

• Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Florida was designated as a FEMA recovery point and medevac staging area following Hurricane Irma. The contract tower opened the day after the storm to support recovery flights and extended its hours of operations on several nights to accommodate National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "hurricane hunter" planes. FEMA is still staging relief efforts at the airport, including managing 200 trucks carrying supplies to south Florida.

• Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, Fla., served as a designated recovery airport prior to Hurricane Irma's arrival and accommodated planes carrying food and water as well as a number of U.S. Coast Guard and Army National Guard helicopters.

• The contract tower at Key West International Airport in Florida was damaged by Hurricane Irma, but employees were quick to return to work at a mobile tower provided by the FAA to support recovery operations.

• The contract tower at Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St. Augustine provided assistance to local law enforcement, media, and state and local government helicopter operations before and after Hurricane Irma, including assisting the Army Corps of Engineers in coastal surveying. The airport also served as a staging area for Florida Power & Light Co. and a number of subcontractors.

• The contract tower at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport was one of the first control towers in the Miami area to reopen after Hurricane Irma and played a key role in immediate recovery operations.

• Henry E. Rohlsen Airport in the U.S. Virgin Islands provided relief efforts throughout St. Croix and other Virgin Islands after the hurricanes. The airport's contract tower personnel, FAA and the U.S. military coordinated to restore service using a mobile control tower following storm-related damage to the main tower.

• Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport and Rafael Hernández Airport in Puerto Rico, both of which utilize FAA contract towers, served as FEMA staging areas for relief efforts.

Additionally, FAA contract towers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington served as a staging ground for a large number of firefighting aircraft during the summer and fall, including:

• Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, a twin-engine heavy-lift helicopter, which can be fitted with a 2,650-gallon tank to disperse water or fire retardant;

• McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which can hold 12,000 gallons of water or fire retardant;

• Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the same aircraft that was used to spread chemical dispersants on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast in 2010;

• Air Tractor AT-802, an amphibious plane that can scoop water from lakes and other nearby bodies of water during firefighting efforts;

• North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, which serves as a guide aircraft for firefighting tanker fleets; and

• Canadair CL-415, an amphibious aircraft built specifically for aerial firefighting.

The FAA Contract Tower Program is a successful 35-year partnership of government and the aviation industry that enjoys strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Contract towers save taxpayers and the FAA approximately $200 million each year, enhance aviation safety at airports that otherwise would not have a control tower, help airports in retaining and developing commercial air service and general aviation, and connect smaller and rural airports to the national air transportation system.

In addition to those benefits, contract towers provide significant support for military readiness and national security operations. Forty-seven percent of all military operations at civilian airports in the United States occur at FAA contract towers.

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