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AIR TRAFFIC JAM : Tower’s Closure Could Be Disastrous, Official Says

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Funding shortfalls threatening to close the air traffic control tower at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center would create flying hazards at the border of Orange and Los Angeles counties, aviation and military officials said.

Each year, air traffic controllers at the Los Alamitos tower supervise 128,000 fixed-winged and helicopter flights, 40,000 of which touch down at or depart from the base. Others are mostly civilian flights that enter the base’s airspace en route to John Wayne, Fullerton and Long Beach airports.

Closure of the tower would force military and civilian aircraft to share airspace without ground guidance.

“Los Alamitos Army Airfield is one of the busiest [Department of Defense] aviation facilities in the United States,” said Lt. Col Thomas E. Lasser, the base’s airfield commander. “We have a very high traffic count and very congested airspace, and the control tower is vital to safe operations in this part of Southern California.”

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The Army proposes next year to stop funding the 14 air traffic controller positions at the tower. Its plan is for the National Guard, which operates the base, to pick up the cost, but the Guard says it can’t afford the $1-million annual expense.

“We feel that the tower should stay open for the safest operation of that field,” said Lt. Col Doug Hart of the Guard’s administrative office in Sacramento. “Without funding, we, the National Guard, are not in a position to operate that air control tower. We just don’t have the funds.”

High-ranking decision-makers in Washington and Atlanta who want the tower to remain open still are trying to find the money as well.

Army Brig. Gen. Pat O’Neal said the base and tower serve important functions in Southern California, and he will continue to try to find money as the Army “right-sizes.” O’Neal said he staved off plans to stop funding this September.

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“It’s just a question of resources,” he said from Ft. McPherson in Georgia. “There’s every intent here to come up with smart and friendly solutions. The last thing we want is unsafe conditions.”

If the tower closes, the airspace, a five-mile radius around the base below 2,500 feet, legally becomes “open” and the responsibility of the pilots, who must monitor radio and radar information that comes in via a national tracking system. That area includes Los Alamitos, Cypress, Seal Beach and parts of Long Beach.

“When you revert to [such a system], one mistake could be disastrous,” said David W. Prebish, chairman of the Orange County Airport Commission. “When you have a tower, somebody makes a mistake and somebody else is watching them.”

With the impending closure of bases at El Toro and Tustin, Los Alamitos’ role becomes more crucial as the only base in Orange and Los Angeles counties, officials said. Los Alamitos trains Southern California reserves and serves as the nerve center when disaster--from the Los Angeles riots to El Nino--strikes Southern California. Crews from the base were deployed for the Laguna Beach fires and Northridge earthquake.

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Air Force One regularly lands at Los Alamitos when the president visits Southern California, and there is some question about where the nation’s most important aircraft will go if the tower, and possibly the runway, close.

When concerns about tower operations sprouted late last year, Prebish and the commission wrote a letter to the Army urging it to keep the tower. Long Beach Municipal Airport issued a similar statement May 13 calling for Federal Aviation Administration review.

Los Alamitos base officers, who cannot directly speak on policy matters surrounding the funding of the 53-year-old tower, acknowledged that the tower plays an important air safety role in the busy skies over Southern California.

Authorities at Orange and Los Angeles county airports are getting involved too.

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“If they continue to operate in and out of Los Al, it would be short-sighted not to have a control tower,” said Rod Propst, Fullerton Municipal Airport manager. “Our concern is not so much the air traffic coming and going to Fullerton as the arrivals and departures of the big airplanes going in and out of Los Al.”

Los Alamitos Mayor Ronald Bates met last month with National Guard officials in Sacramento to lobby to have the Guard fund the tower. The city’s homes, parks and businesses surround the base. And Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) is in discussions with the military. “He’s also confident that by October 1999, there will be a more permanent solution worked with the Army and the National Guard,” an aide said.


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