Airport traffic control tower a ‘step in the right direction’

Matt Algarin
The proposed tower at Destin Airport will closely resemble this tower from Ocala. The Destin tower would be one floor shorter.

After years of discussion and debates, an air traffic control tower at the Destin Airport is within reach.

“Over the years we’ve been working to better manage the airspace that’s immediately around the Destin Airport and the use of the facilities on the ground,” said Okaloosa County’s Airports Director Greg Donovan. “The airspace between here and Eglin is very complex.”

Donovan, who has been the county’s airports director since 2008, joined city leaders at a recent meeting to give them an update on the Destin Airport, which included the current status of the proposed traffic tower and the resurfacing of the runway.

Safety has been the main reason behind the proposed construction of an air traffic control tower in Destin, but airport officials have also said in the past that it would help to eliminate a portion of the noise, due to planes idling less on the tarmac.

In addition to safety, a traffic tower would allow for simultaneous launches between Destin, the Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) and Eglin Air Force Base, which are prohibited currently.

“We believe with the right features and the right coordination between air traffic control officials, we can have simultaneous operations launching from the south in Destin and not affecting anything that’s taking place at Eglin,” he said.

Donovan told city leaders that a 2008 study showed planes were “unnecessarily” burning $2.8 million in fuel in Destin while waiting for traffic to clear at VPS. Conversely, he said the military was spending $1.2 million waiting for traffic to clear up in Destin, according to a 2008 study.

An air traffic control tower was approved earlier this year, when the Federal Aviation Administration accepted the small airport into its contract tower program.

Once he receives approval from Okaloosa County commissioners, Donovan said an environmental assessment, which would last about 16 months, could begin at the site of the tower, which would be on the eastern side of the runway, forward of the midway point.

The FAA will cover 100 percent of the cost for the assessment through grant funding.

“There are about 250 towers in the country that are contract towers,” Donovan said. “Just with the current level of operations we have at Destin, we would be ranked about 77th, so we are well inside the window of justified use.”

The tower, which would cost roughly $3 million to construct, would stand about 84.5 feet tall.

Given an increase in the number of small planes, helicopters, military operations and parasail operators that navigate the skies in Destin, Donovan said the tower might help the city and county address “some of the issues” they’ve been working with recently.

“It’s not going to help it all, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

The Destin Airport will be closed to fixed wing traffic sometime in early January for replacement of the existing 5,000-foot runway, which hasn’t seen a major improvement since 1963, when it was originally constructed, Donovan said.

The work is expected to last about a week, and will see the entire runway replaced, in addition to guidance lights and edge lights. A preconstruction meeting will be held in the next few weeks to decide on the particulars, according to airport officials.

Pilots will not be able to take off or land during that week, and Donovan said VPS would not be available as an alternate destination during work at the Destin Airport because of local military operations.

During the closure, pilots can use Bob Sikes Airport in Crestivew, which is the closest option, at 23-miles, and has complete services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Peter Prince Airport in Milton (35 miles from Destin) and the DeFuniak Springs Airport (26 miles) away, are other options, but both are limited in what size aircraft they can accommodate, Donovan said.

Councilman Jim Wood has been heavily involved in the talks surrounding the airport over the years and told The Log that the addition of an air tower at Destin Airport would be a great “safety enhancement,” saying it’s only a tool in the proverbial toolbox, not a standalone solution.

“Safety can sometimes be a nebulous term,” he said. “You are looking into issues that could happen in the future and asking if a tower might be able to help mitigate future incidents. I think it can.”

Once the environmental assessment is completed, the next step would be to design the structure itself, the access road and the infrastructure, which would take close to six months, Donovan told The Log.

If “everything falls into place,” construction could start in fiscal year 2014, or the beginning of October 2013.