Published March 14. 2013 6:00PM Updated March 15. 2013 6:23PM
Groton — Chet Moore can't say exactly how many accidents the watchful eyes in the controller tower at Groton-New London Airport have prevented through the years.
But controllers' behind-the-scenes work may become more apparent, he warns, if the Federal Aviation Administration goes through with the planned closure of towers at many smaller airports across the country.
Moore, the air traffic manager in Groton, said his job and those of hundreds of other FAA-contracted air traffic controllers are at stake, and aviation safety could be compromised as a result.
"I don't know who came up with this. I don't know why they came up with this … but the bottom line is, it's going to make airports less safe," he said.
Groton-New London Airport is one of six in the state on the chopping block, part of the FAA's attempt to cut more than $600 million from its budget this year as a result of the automatic budget cuts — known as sequestration — that took effect March 1. Under the proposal, 173 towers across the country staffed by contracted employees would be closed for an estimated savings of $45 million to $50 million.
Moore is watching closely for Senate passage this week of an amendment co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to provide $50 million to keep contracted air traffic control towers open, including the six in Connecticut, by obtaining the funds from other FAA accounts.
The amendment would ensure the contracted-tower program is subject to the same 5 percent cut as other FAA programs, rather than the disproportionate 75 percent reduction the FAA has proposed, Blumenthal said.
"Passage of this amendment is vital to protecting air traffic control towers at six airports in Connecticut, including one airport that provides commercial service," Blumenthal said.
"I am actively speaking with Senate leadership to find a way forward," he said. "I'm very hopeful we have strong bipartisan support."
The closures are slated for April 7.
In Groton and throughout Connecticut, Moore said, the controllers work for Mid-West Air Traffic Control Inc., which would lose hundreds of controller jobs nationwide with the cuts. Other towers to be closed in Connecticut are at Sikorsky Memorial, Danbury Municipal, Hartford-Brainard, Tweed-New Haven and Waterbury-Oxford airports.
Blumenthal and the entire state delegation have cited a direct impact on the local economies and the safety of the airports. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has called the contracted system a "cost-effective and certified alternative to FAA-operated towers."
On Wednesday, Courtney wrote a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta expressing his dismay at not only the planned tower closures, but the "disproportionate cut to a program that plays a critical role in the safety of our nation's airspace."
"If these towers are closed, the safety and efficiency of our airspace could be compromised as already short-staffed FAA facilities are left to fill the gap," Courtney said. "Cutting a program that plays such an essential role in air safety is counterproductive and potentially dangerous."
Moore said tower controllers not only track, sequence and clear aircraft for takeoff and landing but monitor weather and wind, while controlling activity on the ground.
"Without the tower here, the pilots are on their own to provide their own separation during takeoffs and landings," he said.
Moore said there is no replacement for eyes on the ground watching for anything from a flock of geese to fog rolling in off the water.
The slower after-hours activities when the tower is not manned are currently covered by T.F. Green Airport in Providence, Moore said. Green would be among other airports that could be inundated by an increased workload, especially during bad weather, he said.
Groton's airport is unique, Moore said, because of the variety of aircraft and programs it hosts, including the Connecticut National Guard helicopter repair facility, the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group.
The airport also serves as one of the checkpoints for nearby flight schools and a hub for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary Group, which flies shoreline missions five days a week, Moore said. The airport hosts VIP arrivals for visits to U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremonies as well as visits to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.
The controllers in Groton's tower have a combined 152 years of experience, Moore said — hard to replace when it comes to the quick response needed for emergency landings and pilot errors.
"Should this facility and others like it close, I truly believe the safety of aviation will change immediately and may not be as favorable as it is now," Moore said.
He's not alone in his efforts to call for a closer look at the issue.
Terry Keller Jr., a flight instructor at Hartford-Brainard Airport, created a petition hoping to gather 100,000 signatures by April 4 to present to the White House. The petition is online at www.PremierFlightCT.com.