NORMAN — Although it isn't a permanent solution, aviation officials say the University of Oklahoma's decision to keep the control tower at Max Westheimer Airport operating will help the student pilots the university trains.
Earlier this week, OU officials announced the university will pay to keep the control tower staffed until the federal budget issues that threatened to close the tower are resolved.
Ken Carson, director of OU's aviation department, said the tower is a critical component of the training the program provides. The announcement that the tower won't close later this month is welcome news, he said.
“It's a benefit to the students,” Carson said. “I'm very pleased with the news.”
The university plans to provide bridge funding — about $38,000 a month — to pay for the tower's current staff, said OU spokeswoman Catherine Bishop. That money comes from auxiliary funds, including fees paid to University Printing Services and the university's motor pool.
That funding will keep the tower open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Currently, the tower operates from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
Although the funding will keep the tower in operation for the time being, Bishop said, it isn't meant as a permanent solution.
“The university will continue to monitor the budget situation in Washington,” she said. “If budget matters remain unresolved for an extended period of time, the university will be prepared to again examine and evaluate the funding question.”
Last month, Federal Aviation Administration officials announced a plan to close 149 air traffic control towers across the country, including six in Oklahoma, as part of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
Besides OU's tower, the tower at Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City is also expected to close, as are the towers at airports in Lawton and Stillwater. The tower at Ardmore Municipal Airport will remain open on a cost-sharing basis. The tower at Enid Woodring Municipal Airport in Enid, which was originally scheduled for closure, will remain open.
The announcement left OU officials scrambling to limit the impact on the university's aviation program. Student pilots are trained to fly in environments both with and without control towers, and Carson said officials had planned to use Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport to train with control towers.
While that option would have met FAA requirements, Carson said, it wouldn't have been ideal.
Students in the program generally complete about 80 percent of their flight time in an environment with a control tower, he said. Although it isn't required, OU officials think it's important because the students in the program typically go on to work for regional airlines and corporations, where experience flying with a control tower is helpful.
If OU's control tower closed, Carson said, the amount of time students spend flying with a control tower would be cut to about 20 percent. It could also make flying at Westheimer Airport more difficult for students during periods of heavy traffic, he said.
Despite that difficulty, Carson said he doesn't think the closure would have caused safety issues for student pilots. If the airport's traffic pattern was crowded and a student pilot became overwhelmed, he said, instructors could have that student divert to another airport or wait to land until things calmed down.
“I know what our student pilots are capable of, and our instructors,” Carson said.
Although the tower isn't shutting down entirely, Carson said the program will still need to implement new policies for Sundays and other days after 8 p.m., when the tower won't be operating.
During those times, he said, instructors and others in the program will need to stay aware of how many students are scheduled to fly at a time.
“We're kind of in uncharted territory,” he said.