Unusual Attitudes: FAA’s Tower of Babel

The tower under construction at Dayton.

Please Plan on Attending" was the subject line in an e-mail from Marty Bevill at Wapakoneta airport ("Wapak" to the locals) about 100 miles north of Cincinnati. Officially AXV, it's the Neil Armstrong Airport at New Knoxville in Auglaize County, nestled in mid-Ohio farm country south of Lima. The airport namesake grew up in Wapak and soloed a Champ on his 16th birthday at a nearby airport called "Port Koneta," which has since reverted to corn and soybeans. Today Wapakoneta is one of a gazillion GA hard-surface airports served by the Tracon at Dayton Airport, officially DAY, the Dayton Cox International Airport at Vandalia in Montgomery County, nestled in the Miami Valley … but I digress.

The message was about an FAA meeting that "would address" proposed operational changes at Dayton tower, specifically the relocation of the Tracon to Columbus, Ohio. The airport operator was hopeful that, if enough users voiced strong and valid objections, the feds would rethink this move.

Well, I'm a heck of a lot better at telling stories than researching data and tracking time lines, but I know Tracon "realignments" have been on the FAA's agenda for a long time, not only at Dayton but all over the country. The air traffic controllers' union is unhappy about being jacked around by FAA management … like when, how and who goes to the new facilities. Aviation groups are unhappy about the lack of transparency, although it's hard believe the FAA would implement something like this without user knowledge and input. … Then there are concerns about safety and quality of service because offsite controllers lack valuable "local knowledge." Staffing in these facilities is so fluid I think the "familiarity" argument is a little weak. My air traffic buddies (the ones I trust) say there won't be any degradation of service or operational differences in getting IFR clearances or VFR advisories. The remote IFR ground frequencies now available at some area airports will remain the same, just "piped" from, in this case, Columbus.

Whatever your take on them, these Tracon realignment recommendations came from the Department of Transportation's Volpe Center "in [its] role of assessing implementation and integration requirements associated with ATCT and Tracon replacement facilities." (Of course it's a quote; would I write something like that?) As with many locations, Dayton's rosy predictions in the late '90s and early '00s just weren't panning out. The airport wasn't generating — and wasn't going to generate — that much traffic, and the considerable IFR traffic Dayton handled for Airborne Airpark (ILN) was a thing of the past. When DHL pulled out of the Wilmington facility, the fleet of air freighters and a significant part of Dayton Tracon's activity evaporated - along with 8,000 jobs.

The last time I spent any time on the ground at Dayton was just before I retired and the FAA assigned me to a task force conducting an in-depth airport audit. I was there only because my safety-program job was gone and they didn't know what else to do with me; the rest of the team came from afar and included some pretty high-powered technical people. Even then, five or six years ago, Dayton Airport was on its ass. The traffic count had been hemorrhaging since US Airways abandoned its hub operation back in the '90s; the "Air" in Emery Air Freight had died 10 years later; GA activity was in the potty; the FAA Flight Service Station and National Weather Service facility were history; McCauley had decided Georgia was a better place to build propellers; and the International Aviation Trade Show finally suffocated under the weight of a disproportionate and dysfunctional "chiefs to Indians" ratio. I felt like Alice on the other side of the looking glass; the things and people were familiar, but it was weirdly fantastical with no logic or cause-effect connection. At the end of the week the team gave its preliminary assessments and recommendations, including the relocation of runways and taxiways. "We" felt it was particularly important to build a new access road because maintenance crews were driving airport vehicles across the field at lunchtime on a shortcut to Wendy's.

The dust settled, I retired, and there probably wasn't much change in the airport lunch traffic at Wendy's. And ever since, I haven't seen anything different in the airport layout when I've cruised by in the Cessna 180 … except the gradual rise of a humongous and oddly shaped tower. Taxpayers might be interested in the architect's description of the facility: "[We were] challenged to create something functional and unique; a notion the FAA and Dayton Airport embraced to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight. Not your typical concrete lookout, this tower is a minimalist study in glass and steel. Once construction is complete, it will soar to 255 feet, nearly 150 feet higher than Dayton Airport's existing control tower. Tapered outward as it rises, the diamond-patterned steel structure is veiled in a glass skin … [and] the project's secondary structure, the Administrative [and originally Tracon] Base Building, is 10,726 square feet."

Ground had been broken on this 100 percent FAA-funded project during the 2003 Dayton Air Show, when Dayton was battling North Carolina about who should celebrate the centennial of flight. Mysteriously, a few years into the project the FAA modified plans for the administrative and radar functions in the base structure. The redesign from two stories to one reportedly cost more than sticking with the original plan. Gee whiz, they could have rented out one of the floors for wedding receptions or used it as a holding cell for runway incursion perps and those guys driving across the field to Wendy's.

OK, maybe Dayton did need a new tower, since the old thing was nearly 40 years old and topped out at a measly 62 feet. And I guess "uncommitting" funds isn't something the FAA knows much about. But, however unique, minimalist and diamond-patterned this thing is when it's dedicated this summer, it won't include a radar facility, just those ever-essential administrative offices.

The good news was I couldn't attend the Wapak FAA briefing, and the bad was I hit "reply all" on the e-mail, which usually generates no end of trouble:

"Hey, guys, this briefing is not about your opinions, and this move is not a proposal. Closing the Dayton Tracon is a done deal, and the only issues open to debate are which pieces of furniture will go to Columbus. If you feel strongly that it's a bad move, then find some politico ratcheting up for his next campaign. Remember that 'Congressionals' — formal requests for information from the office of an elected official (the higher the better) — strike terror into the heart of any FAA bureaucrat worth his GS-15. But even that would only delay these inevitable realignments, which may, in fact, be the right thing to do. Since the poor guys conducting the mandated meeting at your airport don't have the horsepower to turn down the air conditioning in the tower cab, forego impassioned speeches and angry questions. Hey, it's January in Wapak and everybody could use a little fun.

"Find some outgoing, gutsy type who can take control of the meeting from the get-go and don't give these visiting suits an opportunity to launch into their canned spiel. Jump right in: how much you appreciate the FAA's 'leveling the playing field,' 'empowering' you and 'reaching out' for 'user input.' Explain how 'proactive' you've been by 'analyzing the data' and 'coming together' to 'address the issue.' You have 'formulated solutions' to make this a 'win-win' for pilot users and the entire community. They'll be impressed that you are 'team players,' committed to being 'on the same page' with the FAA in solving this dilemma. What dilemma? What in the hell to do with this obscenely big and expensive tower after it's dedicated this summer?

"Sure, there are easy but mundane solutions, like leasing it to the cell phone tower guys or replacing the pole farm on Dayton's south side and mounting one big broadcast antenna on top. Not a bad idea — if you get it up to 2,717 feet, it tops the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and puts Dayton back in the tourist business (after it screwed up and sold all the Wright brothers' sites to Henry Ford). If that's too ambitious, consider a combined tower and revolving restaurant for a whole new spin on the $100 hamburger business model. Then too, this is lush Ohio farm country, so it could be a world-class, futuristic grain silo or a water tower to facilitate power toilet flushing throughout southwestern Ohio. There's a place in Poland called Katowice with a nifty tower the Poles built in 1937 for parachute training and later used for bungee jumps. Polish boy and girl scouts supposedly shot at German troops from it in the early days of World War II, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for Dayton and the feds. …

"But for heaven's sake, tell these FAA guys they'd better come up with something, and fast, or Dayton tower might well be the new Migdal Bavel. Genesis says the builders of this enormous tower in Babylon said, 'Come, let us build ourselves … a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves. …' But God was so pissed about their intent to glorify themselves that he 'confused their languages' (sound like the FAA?) and 'scattered the people throughout the earth' — maybe to places like Columbus."

Well, by golly (as Sarah Palin would say), as this story goes to press I learn the FAA's Tracon national "realignment" plan has been suspended. Oh, sure, everybody's claiming credit — NATCA, AOPA, congressmen and pilot groups — but it's really because some FAA mole on Flying magazine's staff leaked my story to the feds. Ah, shucks, guys, it weren't nothin'.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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