Longer Aspen runway could mean a taller tower | AspenTimes.com

Longer Aspen runway could mean a taller tower

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Pitkin County could be forced by federal aviation officials to build a 188-foot airport control tower, four times the height of the current 47-foot facility, to enable air traffic controllers to see the end of an extended runway at Aspen’s Sardy Field.

But the final decision by the Federal Aviation Administration has not been made, according to airport director Jim Elwood, who is hoping the FAA instead approves an alternative involving the use of a closed-circuit television system to augment the sight lines of air traffic controllers.

That decision is not expected until some time early in 2009, Elwood said. He also stressed that the FAA has been helpful and cooperative in searching for alternatives to the taller tower.

“Obviously, we’re sensitive to what the community’s desires are,” noted Elwood, pointing out the neighborhoods within visual range of the airport would not be happy to see “a 188-foot building go up there.”

Elwood said on Tuesday that the talks with the FAA stretch back to 2004, when local officials first began thinking about adding 1,000 feet to the southern, or upvalley end of the airport runway, to be used for landings only. The runway extension is part of a broad, $80 million airport-facilities master plan that calls for upgrades to the terminal, construction of a parking structure and improvements to other facilities, as well, all subject to approval by Pitkin County commissioners.

According to Elwood, the FAA responded to the county’s overtures by concluding that adding 1,000 feet to the southern end of the runway would actually put the end of the runway at a slightly higher elevation than the top of the existing tower, because of an existing 2 percent rise in the topography.

And because of FAA rules governing controllers’ lines of sight, Elwood said, the 189-foot height would be necessary to provide adequate “depth perception” when viewing the end of the runway.

Local officials recognized right away that a new tower of that height would not find a soft landing among the local populace, and began casting about for alternatives, ultimately coming up with the proposal to use a closed-circuit television system. Similar systems are in place in such places as Spokane, Wash., and Syracuse, N.Y., Elwood said, and the FAA has been open to the idea for Aspen.

But studies on whether the cameras will provide the necessary margin of safety are still under way, Elwood said, noting that, at one point, the FAA’s technical center in Atlantic City, N.J., created a virtual-reality version of the Pitkin County Airport to check out the sight lines and other visual parameters.

Using computers and large monitors that simulated the windows of the Sardy Field control tower, the FAA’s specialists were able to create a mock-up that, according to Elwood, “made you feel like you’re in the tower cab” watching planes take off and land.

The proposed camera system is now in the final stage of review, Elwood said, and a decision is expected early next year.

He noted that the FAA’s computer modeling has shown that a shorter tower is feasible if it is located farther south along the runway, toward Aspen.

But, he added, “The preferred alternative is the cameras.”

For one thing, he said, the estimated $12 to $16 million that it would cost to tear down the old tower and build a new one is not in the local budget for airport improvements.


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