Pilots talk safety, pending Ramona tower closure

Bob MacHale, manager of the air traffic control tower at Ramona Airport, answers a question from a pilot attending a safety seminar at Ramona Airport.  Sentinel photos/Karen Brainard
Bob MacHale, manager of the air traffic control tower at Ramona Airport, answers a question from a pilot attending a safety seminar at Ramona Airport. Sentinel photos/Karen Brainard

By Karen Brainard

The crowd spilled out of a hangar and onto the parking lot Saturday morning at Ramona Airport as everyone listened intently to a review of safety procedures to follow after the Federal Aviation Administration closes the air traffic control tower in June.

Although originally scheduled to shut down on  April 7, the Ramona control tower will remain open until June 15, the FAA announced last week. The federal agency said it was postponing the closures of 149 air traffic control towers across the country to resolve multiple legal challenges. According to the FAA, it must eliminate funding for the towers due to the agency’s $637 million worth of budget cuts required under sequestration.

About 150 men and women, some flying in from other airports such as Montgomery Field and Fallbrook, showed up for the April 6 safety seminar, aimed at helping to smooth the transition from towered to non-towered operations at Ramona Airport. “It’s always good to be refreshed,” said Jaye Matthews, president of Pacific Executive Aviation, which leases out 60 hangars at the airport and hosted the safety meeting. Matthews said about 150 aircraft are stationed at Ramona.

Addressing the crowd, Julie Keane, who has a flight school at the airport  — Julie Keane Aviation — and volunteers as an FAA Safety Team (FAAST) representative, said, “Collision avoidance is going to be our biggest concern. We need to mitigate the risk.”

Keane and Bob MacHale, manager of the air traffic control tower, reviewed such procedures as approaches into the airport, scanning for air traffic, reporting positions, and using radio contact. Keane said aircraft without radios are legally allowed to fly at non-towered airports. A review sheet containing non-towered airport operations and resource phone numbers and websites was disseminated among those attending.

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Julie Keane, an instructor and FAA Safety Team representative, reminds pilots to always keep an eye out for air traffic. About 150 people attended a safety seminar at Ramona Airport, some flying in from other airports in the county. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

The control tower was established in 2004, after three people died in a 1995 mid-air collision involving federal firefighting aircraft. Ramona Airport is in the district of County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who has been fighting the closure, citing public safety, especially since it serves as the hub for Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service when fighting wildfires.

Keane told the pilots to be aware of Cal Fire operations and to be cautious.

“Be vigilant for helicopters,” warned MacHale.

The air traffic controller said Cal Fire arrives quickly and departs quickly, and pilots should make sure they don’t do anything to hinder the fire agency’s operations.

“Can Cal Fire do this operation without me? I’m sure they can,” he said.

Andy Martin, vice president of R. A. Burch Construction Co. Inc., noted after the seminar that fire tankers are much bigger aircraft with different speeds.

“Just got to be a lot more careful, a lot more vigilant,” he said of non-towered operations.

Martin lives in San Diego but leases a hangar at Chuck Hall Aviation at the airport so he can fly in and out for business, mostly to destinations in the Southwest.

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Andy Martin, right, stands outside a hangar, along with about 45 others, to hear officials discuss safety procedures pending the closure of the airport’s traffic control tower in June. All 100 chairs inside the hangar were filled. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

Although he flies into quite a few airports without air traffic controllers, none of them are as busy as Ramona, he said. Ramona Airport, said Martin, “almost always has traffic.”

Ramonan Mitch Burch keeps his plane in a hangar he leases from Pacific Executive Aviation and flies for both business and pleasure.

“It’s slow sometimes but when it gets busy, it’s crazy,” he said. “It’ll work without a tower, but it’s not going to be nearly as safe.”

Having the air traffic control tower is much better for student pilots, noted Matthews.

“There’s a great flight school here because of the safety factor,” she said.

Ant Bilsev, a flight instructor at Ramona, said he has 11 students. Without air traffic controllers, Bilsev said he will be especially concerned about the safety of students flying solo for the first time.

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One plane takes off as another heads for the runway after the safety seminar Saturday at Ramona Airport. 851 A group heads out in their plane following a meeting at Ramona Airport about procedures for non-towered airports. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

Resident Martin Wood, who was there with his wife, Anne, said that when he t­­ook flying lessons at Montgomery Field in the 1990s, his instructor would not allow him to fly into Ramona because it did not have an air traffic control tower then.

“I think the airport is a good thing for the town. I think it brings money to the community,” said Wood. “I think it’s worthwhile to keep it safe.

“My business has benefited from the tower,” commented Matthews.

She praised MacHale, who has been at the Ramona air traffic control tower for nine years.

“He has been wonderful. He’s good, he’s professional,” Matthews said.

MacHale works for Serco, an international company that contracts with the FAA to provide air traffic control services. He does not know what he will be doing after June 15 but said right now he wants to serve the customers.

“We just want to do right by everybody. We just have to hope for the best,” said MacHale.

   
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