Mercer Aviation students may be impacted by the closure of the control tower at Trenton Mercer Airport on June 7 due to budget cuts from the federal government’s budget sequestration.
Located at Trenton Mercer Airport is the Mercer Flight Academy. Students enrolled in the aviation program go to the Mercer Flight Academy to perform their in-flight training.
According to chief pilot Judith Stillwagon and assistant chief pilot and professor Jerry Kuhl, the closure of the control tower could increase the risk that students face in the air and potentially increase the cost to complete the aviation program.
Professor Kuhl says that the primary purpose of the control tower is to sequence the aircraft for both take off and landings.
“You may have a situation, for instance, where two aircraft may rightfully think they have the right to safely take off and they could be headed directly toward each other. It’s a situation where we are supposed to self-announce, and let me emphasize that word ‘supposed,'” said Kuhl.
The nature of the crisscrossing runways is one of the chief concerns for Kuhl, who said, “It would be like an unsupervised traffic intersection, it’s all very well to have automation and rely on everybody to obey stop signs and be courteous, unfortunately that doesn’t always happen.”
Fourth year flight student at MCCC Ramon Morell has similar concerns, saying, “It’s in the back of my mind, just thinking about, if I’m taking off who could be on the other side of the airport. I can’t see all the way down at the opposite end. There’s too many taxiways here to get good coverage of the whole airport.”
Not all students are concerned about the prospect of flying without the assistance of the control tower. Curtis Landsberger is enrolled in the MCCC aviation program to expand his aviation education, but has worked in the aviation industry in various capacities for over thirty years.
“I don’t think there will be any mistakes there, the pilot in command has to pay attention to situational awareness. There is still radio communications among aircraft. There are traffic patterns you have to follow both inbound and outbound.” Says Landsberger.
According to Stillwagon, the closure of the control tower could also impact the amount of money flight students need to spend in order to complete their training. Students need to pay to use the aircraft that they train on at a rate of 140 dollars an hour, plus an additional forty-five dollars an hour to fly with an instructor.
“The students will end up acquiring more time on the ground waiting, thus increasing their cost because they still need to be proficient at their manuvers in the air” says Stillwagon.
Additional airport closures in the area surrounding Philadelphia could create additional risk factors for students at Trenton Mercer Airport.
“They’ll be closing towers in the area, which puts a load on Philadelphia approach control. They are generally the ones who will give us traffic advisories on other aircraft in the area. It will be a heavier workload for them, which means they may not be able to give us those traffic reports,” said Stillwagon.
Stillwagon explained that the control tower supports the students: “We always teach our students to look and see and avoid, but it was always nice having that extra set of eyes out there.”
The aviation instructors expect they’ll need to perform additional training for students as well in order to compensate for the lack of a control tower.
“We would have additional training that we would have to do. We have a wide area of operation at the Trenton Airport. When you’re taking off from one runway you can’t see the ends of some of the other runways, so we would have to go through some extensive training on teaching them how to operate in that atmosphere,” said Stillwagon.
Initially, the control tower was scheduled to close on April 7. However, the closure has been delayed until June 7th as the government agency overseeing the closing of the airports reviews the situation.
“It has been postponed, but I think it’s unconscionable that it happened in the first place,” said Kuhl. “This does seem to be something that has entered into the realm of politics and safety has taken a back seat.”
“We’re talking about a very complex operation that demands vigilance, and when you take out this supervisory element, this overseeing, you’re creating at best an awkward situation,” said Kuhl.