The possible closure of the air-traffic control tower at Tucson's Ryan Airfield under federal sequestration cuts would compromise safety at the small airport, local aviation officials say.
Ryan was among 200 small airports on a list of possible contract control-tower closures released by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency will choose to close towers at 100 of the airports, each of which have fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings annually.
The other Arizona airports on the possible closure list are Glendale Municipal Airport, Phoenix Goodyear Airport and Laughlin-Bullhead International Airport.
While no final decision has been made, an airport official and local pilots say closing Ryan's tower would jeopardize safety.
Operated by the Tucson Airport Authority, Ryan Airfield is a general-aviation "reliever" for Tucson International Airport. Ryan's tower is operated by a federal contractor, and it is one of the busiest airports in Arizona with a contract tower, with 117,275 takeoffs and landings last year.
"It would affect safety for general-aviation operations - there's a lot of activity out there," said Mary Davis, director of business development for the Airport Authority. "We can't reiterate enough our concern about safety out there if Ryan's tower is closed."
The tower is open daily from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Without an air-traffic controller, pilots take turns taking off and landing by announcing their locations and intentions over a radio frequency dedicated to the airport.
"The tower sequences and separates you for arrival and departures, for your safety," said longtime local pilot and flight instructor Barbara Harper. "It would be an injustice (if Ryan's tower were closed)," Harper said. "It's a reflection of the poor leadership in Washington, and it doesn't support general aviation."
Harper and local pilot Brian Forstall, a board member of the Arizona Pilots Association, noted that Ryan has advanced instrument-landing systems that many smaller airports lack.
Many pilots take advantage of Ryan's instrument systems for practice while avoiding commercial airliner traffic at TIA, Forstall said.
Closing the tower would shift more training traffic to TIA, Forstall noted.
"Ryan's control tower is a safety issue - there's a lot of training that goes on at Ryan that relieves Tucson (International)," he said.
Ryan, about 12 miles west of TIA at the intersection of West Ajo Way and Valencia Road, has three runways, 300 aircraft tie-downs and about 20 business tenants, including flight schools and maintenance services.
One runway is not lighted, another is lit during control-tower hours, and a third can be lit by incoming pilots via radio command.
The Department of Transportation says that if sequestration occurs, it will be forced to cut nearly a billion dollars from its budget, including more than $600 million from the Federal Aviation Administration.
For now, airport officials can only monitor the situation and hope for the best.
"We're in a waiting game, just like the rest of America," Davis said.
Did you know?
Ryan Airfield was built in the 1940s as a training camp for the Army Air Corps.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.