Virginia

Pilots Urge FAA Not to End Virginia Airport's Remote Tower Technology

The Leesburg Executive Airport is one of only two in the country that use the unique air traffic control system

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Pilots who frequent a Northern Virginia airport say a federal decision to ground a unique air traffic control system the airport uses will put safety at risk.

When a plane takes off and lands at Leesburg Executive Airport, it’s guided by something called a remote air traffic control tower. Devices atop the terminal gather data that's transmitted to air traffic controllers inside a nearby office park.

"The controllers are looking at a video wall of a 360 degree view of the airport from a location off-airport," said Scott Coffman, the airport's manager.

The airport is one of only two in the country where a private company has been testing a remote tower control system. The testing started in 2018 it's received rave reviews from pilots.

But last week, the FAA stunned the airport community and public officials when it announced it would end the remote tower program in mid-June.

"We were shocked to find this out," Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk said. "This has been a very successful program, and we brag about it wherever we go."

Gabe Muller has been flying out of the airport since 2011, and leads a pilots club. He said remote air traffic control, or ATC, is invaluable, especially with five flight schools in the area.

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"To me, it is such a comforting feeling to know I have team that is helping me navigate in and out of here, but also helping everybody else around me as well," Muller said.

The arrival of the remote tower also spurred growth. Airport operations have been soaring, with take-offs and landings during the hours the remote tower is in operation growing from about 53,000 in 2018 to nearly 78,000 last year.

"To go from a success story to, 'We’re going to turn it off now,' is, is a big change for the airport," Coffman said.

In a statement, the FAA said the shutdown is coming because the private company in charge of the remote tower technology decided not to continue to seek full approval.

“The remote tower in Leesburg is part of a test program. The FAA cannot allow the use of an unapproved system in the National Airspace System. It creates a safety risk," the statement read in part.

But Coffman and pilots say that having no tower at all in this complicated airspace is a bigger issue.

"My goal here, my mission and my statement is that if we lose our tower we are going to be putting safety at risk," Muller said.

Elected leaders and pilots have joined forces to ask the FAA to reconsider, or to at-minimum keep the remote tower going until the end of 2023 so they can explore other options.

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