By Sarah Sapeda,
City News Service
San Diego County Board of Supervisors went on record Tuesday against the possible sequestration-related closing of the control tower at Ramona Airport, which serves as a firefighting air base.
Sequestration cuts would result in the Federal Aviation Administration scaling back the number of air traffic controllers assigned to secondary non-commercial airports, and the Ramona tower is among those that could be affected, according to supervisors Dianne Jacob and Ron Roberts.
Ramona is the only San Diego County airport that could fully support Cal Fire’s aircraft, and leaving its tower unstaffed would be a disaster waiting to happen, Jacob said.
“Federal government, because they can’t get its budget house in order, is looking to close a facility that’s central to the safety of every man, woman, and child in the San Diego region, and not only that but to other Southern California counties,” Jacob said. “So rather that taking a scalpel to its budget problems, the federal government’s using a hatchet, and as a result our region will suffer.”
The supervisors voted unanimously to have the county’s chief administrative officer send a letter to the FAA and the federal Department of Transportation to register their opposition to leaving the Ramona tower unstaffed. The letter also would be shared among the the area’s congressional delegation.
“It’s incumbent upon us to share this information with the federal government and have them seek a wiser solution than the half a million dollars or so it would cost them to maintain the operation of this base,’’ Roberts said.
Cal Fire responds to more than 400 calls annually and is responsible for protecting more than 1.7 million acres, including U.S. Forest Service land.
During larger fires, up to 18 aircraft can operate out of the Ramona airport, coordinated by air traffic controllers, Jacob said.
“Without controllers in the tower, no one would be available to perform the vital air traffic functions in a disaster, let alone on a day-to-day operation,” Jacob said. “Cal Fire’s aerial capabilities would be crippled in a region prone to wildfire.”
If the tower is closed, Cal Fire’s coordination of emergency vehicles and aircraft to and from the airport would be eliminated, which would increase the probability of a collision, such as the 1995 mid-air collision in Ramona involving federal aircraft, Jacob said.
In 1995, when the Ramona tower was unstaffed, three people died in an in-flight collision between U.S. Forest Service aircraft engaged in firefighting.
“This tragedy spurred effort to open the tower — it took a long time to get here, and today this tower also serves as one of the busiest general aviation airfields in the county, handling more than 155,000 operations a year,” Jacob said. “You combine that with the aerial air attack aircraft, and this is a potential for disaster if this tower closes.”