Friedman Memorial Airport

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority will be looking more in-depth at virtual control tower options this year, board members decided Tuesday. The airport will need to remove its existing tower by 2023 per FAA mandate.

After years of discussing a remote air-traffic control solution, Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board members agreed Tuesday that the project should be moved to the front burner.

Unlike traditional towers normally seen at airports, remote control centers can be off-site, even in another town or state. At Friedman, a remote center would involve a network of cameras placed along the airfield, allowing controllers to view live flight activity side-by-side with air traffic radar on a panel of monitors.

That could become a reality within the next two years, according to airport Manager Chris Pomeroy.

Shifting from a physical to virtual tower is of particular interest because the airport has been under a mandate from the Federal Aviation Administration since 2013 to relocate its control tower, which sits on the east side of the runway along state Highway 75 in its designated “runway obstacle-free area,” said Bill Payne, an air traffic control consultant for the Friedman airport. The FAA’s deadline for relocation is 2023.

Rebuilding Friedman’s control tower could cost $7.5 million, according to a previous airport estimate.

“Some benefits of a [virtual tower] would be that this center would be cheaper to construct and to operate, and it would not require a large call facility like a traditional, sticks-and-bricks air traffic control tower,” Pomeroy said.

All airport board members present Tuesday agreed that now is the time to start putting together a request-for-proposal document—or an RFP—to solicit bids from vendors who would help carry out the project. Once issued, the RFP will mark Friedman’s first concrete step toward pursuing a remote tower, allowing airport staff to weigh the cost of implementing the digital technology against the cost of relocating its existing tower.

“I think we need to push it along as much as we can,” board member Ron Fairfax said. “My worry is that this seemingly short-term project would take 10 years to finish, and I don’t want be in the position where we don’t have a tower.”

The hope is that the project would be part of the FAA’s digital-tower pilot program, currently in testing at only two airports in the U.S.: Leesburg Executive Airport in Virginia and the Fort Collins-Loveland Airport in Colorado. Though neither remote tower system has yet been certified by the FAA, the technology has shown promising results, according to Bill Payne, an air traffic control consultant for the Friedman airport.

“Obviously the risk is that we put in a remote tower and it doesn’t get certified. But the only way to assess [risk] is to put an RFP out,” Pomeroy said. “Based on our conversation with the FAA a couple of weeks ago, we need to make a decision within the next six to eight months before the end of this calendar year.”

Funding options for the digital tower could go several ways, Payne said.

“You can take a ‘bake sale’ approach by asking for local funding [from jurisdictions], which may not be productive, or you can use CARES funds,” he told the board. “But obviously the best option for us is getting into the FAA pilot program.”

After selecting a manufacturer of the digital remote technology, the airport would need to decide on a site to install equipment, build out that site and have equipment certified as safe to operate, Payne said.

“You could even look at building it off-site in a building close to the airport, as long as it’s about 2,000 square feet,” he said.

Board member Angenie McCleary said she supported the virtual tower concept but felt the “devil is in the details.”

“It sort of seems that way still,” she said. “But going ahead with the RFP is just the next step forward, not a true commitment, and there are still places along the way to change course.”

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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