Board member Larry Thompson of east Cobb considers it essential to have a control tower at Cobb County Airport at McCollum Field.
Thompson said he flew in and out of the airport for decades before the county’s first control tower was built in 1995.
“But as it became busier and busier, it became more and more dangerous, and that’s why we got one to begin with, and now we’re even busier than that,” he said.
Thompson recalled one instance prior to the control tower being built when he nearly lost his life in a mid-air collision. He was attempting to land his Cessna Citation while a pilot was taking off in an Aero Commander.
“We came within a hair’s breadth of having a mid-air (collision) over that,” Thompson said. “It was so close, I could tell he had glasses on and a mustache.”
After such a close call, Thompson moved his aircraft over to the Fulton airport until Cobb built a tower.
“People that operate these high-performance airplanes, the jet aircraft, are reluctant to go into high traffic areas without a control tower,” Thompson said. “It’s just too dangerous.”
Board member Thomas Huff, with Atlanta Executive Jet Center, the airport’s fixed-base operator and the entity that provides all the services pilots need at McCollum, from fuel to catering, said some people don’t like control towers. Yet, “I know for sure that the tower has prevented me from having an accident,” Huff said.
Huff worried about a scenario in which a student pilot flying visually approaches a corporate jet on autopilot.
“That’s a scary scenario,” Huff said.
All pilots know that no one fills out a mid-air collision survival form because nobody lives through a mid-air collision, he said.
“I view this as taking a traffic light down out here at the corner of the four lane highway,” Thompson said. “Sooner or later, somebody is going to hit down there. I view this the same way. It’s just a matter of time before somebody does.”
With the proposed shuttering of the control tower, Thompson fears people will start using the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, where the air tower remains untouched by the federal sequestration.
One of the reasons for convincing a company to base its flight department at McCollum is so a company’s corporate office will follow and locate in Cobb County, Thompson said.
“We have saved several flight departments in Atlanta that were going to shut down, and we get hold of them and talk to them about the tax structure in Cobb, the fuel cost, hangar cost and all that kind of stuff, and we were able to save several flight departments in Atlanta that moved here,” Thompson said. “Some of those, three that I know about, ultimately moved their corporate offices here, so it’s a financial benefit to keep it open, not to talk about safety.”
Fortune 100 companies use a rating service that tells them where the safest airports are. Cobb’s airport has a superior score from the rating agencies in part because of its control tower. By closing the tower, Thompson said, “Countywide you will lose the Fortune 100 companies that come in here.”
Airport manager Karl Von Hagel said the trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement is that no one knows how long the FAA will withhold dollars to staff the tower.
Thompson believes it will not be temporary.
“I kind of see it as a permanent thing because the president has so demonized people who operate airplanes to begin with,” Thompson said. “This is just a way to continue the class warfare crap that goes on up there.”
Commissioner Bob Ott said the Obama administration is trying to impact as many people as possible with the sequester, “to get people to come begging for them to raise taxes.”
Could county wean itself from feds?
Board member Butch Thompson — no relation to Larry Thompson — asked about the employee contract to staff the tower. The federal government contracts with RVA Inc., which in turn subcontracts with CI2 to provide the staff for the tower, Von Hagel said.
“There is a disadvantaged enterprise goal they need to meet as part of the federal contract,” Von Hagel said. “A certain percentage of funds has to go to minority or woman-managed companies.
The federal government spends about $700,000 a year for one part-time and six full-time employees to provide air-traffic control services at McCollum Field.
Butch Thompson suggested the airport board could run the tower itself for 30 percent cheaper.
Ott said if the federal government sees the county picking up the tab, it may cut off all future funding completely, something Butch Thompson said was OK with him.
“The quicker we get away from the federal government, the better off we all are going to be,” he said.
Ott said while there is nothing wrong with wanting the airport to become self sustaining, don’t rely on the county government to pick up the slack.
“Because what you’re doing if you ask the county, you’re asking the 700,000 or however many people in the county that don’t fly airplanes to subsidize operations at the airport,” Ott said.
The case could be made that the airport is an economic engine for the county, Ott said.
But Ott’s view is that the cost for the airport needs to be paid by the people who use the airport.
The airport board ended Monday’s meeting by forming two committees. One will prepare the transition from having a tower to not having one, taking the operational steps to convert operations to ensure pilots have all the weather information, lighting and other equipment that a control tower would provide them.
The other committee will examine what to do about the tower in the long term. That could involve hiring a staff at reduced hours and asking the Town Center Community Improvement District for financial assistance.
Von Hagel said the airport is for the most part revenue neutral in its $500,000 a year budget.
“We generate around $600,000, which leaves us with about $100,000 for unanticipated expenses in capital. That’s basically the revenue neutral,” he said.
The larger capital improvement projects, such as the proposed new $2.5 million control tower next fall, are funded by the county and federal government.