The Town of Marana is one big step closer toward installing an air traffic control tower at the Marana Regional Airport after the Federal Aviation Administration accepted the town into the Federal Control Tower program last month.
Marana Regional Airport was first established as a small satellite airfield used by military forces during the beginnings of World War II. Then known as “Marana Auxiliary Army Airfield #2,” the airport has grown into a busy destination that hosts single engine and jet airplanes, a variety of military operations and multiple private aircraft.
“It’s a fairly common practice for a lot of airports that don’t have an extensive amount of traffic that the pilots will communicate with each other and announce their intentions,” said David Byers of Quadrex Aviation, an airport development firm contracted by the Town of Marana. “But you reach a point where it just gets so congested. There’s flight training, there’s corporate jets that come and go, sooner or later you reach a point where it just gets really busy.”
Byers equates the installation of a new control tower to a small two-way intersection with a stop sign that receives a traffic light signal once more cars begin using the road.
“That’s really the growing pains that airports have,” Byers said. “You reach that point where you really need a control tower to make it a much safer environment because you’ve got someone that’s watching out for you.”
Marana’s application for the FCT program, produced by Byers, was accompanied by more than 50 letters of support from government and military officials, community members and private companies that use the airport on a regular basis.
Some of those letters shed light on issues experienced at the airport, and why a control tower is so badly needed.
“We have witnessed multiple instances of pilot confusion related to the intersecting runways, particularly due to the inversion of runways number 30/03 and 12/21,” wrote Tyler Struges, owner of Volare Helicopters. “Additionally, the high volume of military parachute and helicopter operations often disrupt the airport traffic flow due to the unusual nature of their activities. We believe a control tower would eliminate many of these issues and significantly increase safety at the airport.”
Volare Helicopters provides sightseeing tours, flight training and photography flights based out of Marana Regional Airport. David Tetrault, a local pilot and flight instructor who also operates out of the airport, wrote that he has experienced “numerous close calls” in and near the pattern (the standard path for takeoffs and landings) over the many years he has worked there.
“Those close calls have been due to other aircraft not flying the pattern correctly and having vehicles cross or enter the runway while I am on short final. A flight instructor I work with just had a sky diver land on the runway while he and his student were on final approach,” Tetrault wrote. “My personal opinion is that the increasing volume and diversity of operations at Marana Regional Airport is creating an unsafe environment that can be solved and managed by Air Traffic Control. I applaud the effort to bring Air Traffic Control to Marana Regional Airport before a serious or fatal event occurs.”
Northwest Fire Chief Norman Bradley wrote that his department has responded “numerous” times to Marana Regional Airport for medical emergencies, hazardous material incidents, military and civilian parachuting incidents, aircraft fires and crashes.
“Similar to the manner our response units rely on a single point of contact in our daily dispatches through a 911 Communications Center, offering pilots, passengers, and responders a single point of contact in and around the flight line during an emergency would greatly improve the safety of all involved,” Bradley wrote. “We believe an air traffic control tower would significantly assist with communications between the flight crew, or pilot, and our 911 Communications Center.”
The Town of Marana has been interested in installing a control tower for more than 10 years, according to Byers, but the economic recession coupled with a federal “moratorium” on new control towers prevented them from ever acting.
“The FAA, for a long time, did not consider applications for new towers,” he said. “But that’s over, and so there’s probably seven or eight new towers across the country that are in some form of development.”
The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill, signed by President Donald Trump, helped removed a $2 million federal funding cap for new control towers. The town estimates a new tower would cost about $8 million or more.
Before this funding cap was lifted, Marana would have to gather funds from other sources. Now, the town is eligible for FAA grants equaling more than 90 percent of the cost of tower construction and communication equipment.
With Marana officially accepted into the FCT program, the town has a green light to do a siting analysis, design and receive construction bids for a tower. The FAA will staff the tower with federally contracted air traffic controllers, granted that the town build a tower that meets their standards.
Byers said if everything goes according to plan and they fast track the process, a new control tower could come online within two years. The FCT program requires the airport to build a tower within five years, or else they lose access to the federal funding.
“I’m really thrilled about this,” said Marana Mayor Ed Honea. “Back in 2008, we were approved in the program, in fact, we started designing the tower and everything, and then the economy crashed so they quit building towers. I think it will really benefit the town, and it’s my understanding that the tower at Marana’s northwest airport could also benefit Pinal Airpark as well. If it makes air safety better throughout the entire region, then that’s really good on our part.”