The new air traffic control tower at Destin Executive Airport is expected to improve safety and efficiency at the facility. After years of planning, and nearly a year since its official ribbon cutting, Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Leroy Manor sent off the first flight from Destin Executive Airport's new air control tower, which was named after Manor.

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“N1429J is cleared for takeoff.”

With those five words on Wednesday morning, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Leroy J. Manor signaled the official opening of the new control tower at Destin Executive Airport, which is named in his honor. Manor, 96, began his career as a P-47 fighter pilot in World War II, and also flew during the Vietnam War.

Six stories below Manor and a few hundred yards down an airport runway, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Wooley, chairman of the Okaloosa County Airport Board, responded with “29 Juliet, on the roll.”

A few seconds later, Kelley and a passenger in his single-engine airplane, Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Carolyn Ketchel, passed in front of the tower.

"Congratulations, Gen. Manor,” Kelley said as the plane rose into Tuesday morning’s clear blue sky.

The operational opening of the tower came nearly a year after the structure itself was dedicated to Manor in a January celebration.

In the intervening months, a host of communications gear, weather equipment, telephone lines, digital fiber lines and other equipment were installed in the tower “cab,” where controllers are now supervising takeoffs and landings from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.

The tower and its equipment came at a price tag of almost $6 million, with the cost being shared almost equally between the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation, according to Chad Rogers, Destin Executive Airport’s general aviation manager.

The tower’s air traffic controllers are employed by Oklahoma-based Robinson Aviation as part of the FAA-funded “contract tower” program. Initially, they’ll be handling approximately 65,000 “operations” — takeoffs are considered a single operation, as are landings — each year, the current level of traffic at Destin Executive Airport, according to Tracy Stage, the airport director.

The tower has “been the top goal” for Destin Executive Airport for years, Stage said, and given the large number of annual operations, “there’s no doubt it will increase safety.”

Until the tower became operational Tuesday, Destin Executive had been an “uncontrolled airport,” meaning that communication between pilots and established airport procedures governed operations at the facility.

But with the mix of commercial and general aviation traffic in the area, including instructional flights, not to mention traffic into and out of Eglin Air Force Base five miles away, Destin Executive includes what local flight instructor Bill Castlen, a long-time advocate for the tower, called a “quite complex” airspace, particularly for pilots who don’t regularly use the facility.

“You’ve got all experience levels and you’ve got all speeds,” Castlen said.

Eglin Air Force Base will continue to handle air traffic control for much of the area, but with the opening of the Destin Executive tower, a slice of the airspace near the airport will be handled by the contract controllers. The new facility is a “VFR tower” – operating under visual flight rules, meaning that it isn’t equipped with radar.

The controllers will keep arriving and departing aircraft on strict paths into and out of the facility, also with an eye toward reducing noise in the vicinity of the airport.

The new tower could also reduce fuel expenditures at Eglin, Rogers said, as Destin Executive traffic can now be regulated to keep jets from holding on Eglin runways, burning fuel without moving as they adjust for civilian air traffic.

“If Eglin is holding a jet, that’s taxpayer dollars,” Rogers explained.

After sending Kelley and Ketchel on their way, Manor had some brief remarks, acknowledging his reliance on air traffic control personnel during his military career.

Manor said it was “a great honor” to have the tower named for him, and called the facility “a big boost to the community,” although it may have been a little late in coming.

“Better late than never,” Manor said, noting that the tower “probably could have been used years ago.”