Hickory Regional Airport is a rare bird among North Carolina’s 55 small public airports: It has a control tower.
However, only two small N.C. airports, in addition to those large cities that have passenger service, will have control towers when the Federal Aviation Administration closes the tower in Hickory, as well as the towers at Concord and three other N.C. airports in June.
Pilots will continue to land at Hickory, which averages 96 flights a day, airport manager Terry Clark said.
Hickory campaigned against the tower closure but does not have money to keep the tower open, Clark said. Five controllers are under contract with the FAA to operate the tower.
Generally, one controller is on duty at a time, communicating with pilots as they taxi, take off and land at Hickory Regional, located on the Catawba-Burke county line. The tower currently is staffed seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Once the tower closes, Hickory pilots will continue their routine of talking to each other on the same radio frequency as they prepare to land or take off, Clark said. They also can talk with air controllers in Atlanta, he said.
Concord will pay the salaries of controllers for two months to keep its tower open as the city studies what to do. Concord may lose several large planes operated by NASCAR teams because of insurance regulations that require pilots to use a tower-controlled airport.
Clark says Hickory Regional is home to several corporate planes, but he does not expect to lose any to insurance problems. Corporations regularly using the Hickory airport include Corning, CommScope, Hickory Springs, Target, Charlotte Charter Jet, Net Jets and Kohler.
Hickory officials have worried for years that the control tower would close if it did not have enough flights to meet federal standards; still, the closure came as a surprise when the FAA announced it would shutter 149 federally funded control towers to save $637 million.
Airports with scheduled commercial-airlines flights will have occasional furloughs of controllers to reduce costs. Scheduled passenger service is offered at six airports in North Carolina: Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Greensboro, Asheville, Wilmington and Fayetteville.
Albemarle and Elizabeth City will be the only small airports in the state with a control tower. Both serve military or reserve military flights.
Jeff Wofford has been flying out of the Hickory airport since 1980 and is chief pilot for a large Catawba County corporation. Hickory’s tower helps coordinate a large mix of air traffic, from small planes to corporate jets, Wofford said.
“Without the tower, you don’t have the oversight,” Wofford said. “We will have to be more vigilant and follow the rules.”
Wofford said many ask him if the airport will be safe without a control tower: “Yes, I tell them unequivocally it will be safe, but not as safe,” he said.
Al Bormuth, a Morganton pilot who hangars his plane in Hickory, says that when pilots use airports without controllers, they talk to one another directly by radio. “You work it out between you and space yourself.”
Bormuth said flying into Hickory will be safe when the tower closes, but not as safe as it would be with a controller on duty. The chances of a mid-air collision will increase, he said.
State Aviation Director Richard Walls said the N.C. Department of Transportation is looking at ways to keep the towers open, “but unless something changes, yes, they will close.”
Walls said control towers are an important safety feature.
“Having an operator greatly enhances safety,” Walls said.
Dianne Whitacre Straley is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Dianne? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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