SARA losing air traffic control

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 10, 2011

An unlucky lightning strike paired with federal budget cuts means the military will no longer provide air traffic control services to the South Alabama Regional Airport (SARA).

Airport co-executive director Jed Blackwell said the air traffic control tower and ground-control approach radar, which was due to be upgraded in 2012, was hit by lightning on Sept. 28. The tower is staffed by personnel stationed at Ft. Rucker.

“This equipment was put in 1994, and we knew the time would come when it would not be repairable,” Blackwell said, adding it was the oldest equipment in the Department of Defense inventory.

The radar already was scheduled to be replaced by the U.S. Army in 2012, at a cost of approximately $9.5 million. Federal budget restraints now make that impossible, he said.

At present, SARA has the highest traffic count of any non-commercial airport in Alabama. Without an air traffic control tower, the facility will be reclassified from Class D air space to Class G air space.

“Class G is an uncontrolled airfield CTAF (common traffic advisory) frequency,” Blackwell explained. “Basically you come in at your own discretion, using CTAF frequency.”

Even without the air traffic control tower, Blackwell expects heavy traffic to continue. SARA is a major refueling stop for military traffic.

“We’ve been assured by Ft. Rucker that our traffic count will not be affected,” Blackwell said. “If anything, it will increase.

“They state that right now, they are getting in 52 students every two weeks. That will increase to 64 new students per week by the end of FY 2012, and ultimately they will have more aircraft flying. They like our centralized location here at airport, and we’ll be one of their primary refueling stops.”

Blackwell said the change shouldn’t affect the Navy’s ability to refuel locally, either. The only expected loss of traffic is the Air Force T-6.

“It can’t come in to uncontrolled airfield,” Blackwell said. “That’s the only loss we expect. We hope to make that up with the increased traffic from Ft. Rucker.”

Meanwhile, he said, SARA personnel will take all possible safety measures and work to secure a new radar system.

“From our standpoint, we still plan to give weather advisories to all traffic,” Blackwell said. “We don’t have licensed air traffic control, but we do plan to assist by monitoring radios. Safety is a top priority.”

And, he said, he will continue to work to have a radar allocation returned to the military budget.

Airport tenants were notified of the changes last week.