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What is Plan B? Some Pilots Concerned About Tower Safety atThe Northern Colorado Regional Airport

Remote Tower Certification Delayed Indefinitely; Mobile Tower Lacks Radar

By Jessica Schneider

Editor

The Loveland Voice

June 30, 2023


Between hangar evictions, spending decisions and the abrupt departure of the director, the Northern Colorado Regional Airport (FNL) has been the subject of local controversy in recent months.


The Loveland Voice is interviewing pilots and local leaders to understand the implications that recent decision making regarding FNL may have on the larger community. This is the first part of a multi-part series about those issues.


The Two Towers

The Northern Colorado Regional Airport (FNL/KFNL)* was the first test location for a virtual, or remote tower approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the nation. A second remote tower was later approved by the FAA in Leesburg, VA. But in February 2023, the FAA canceled the Leesburg remote tower program.


The remote tower at FNL, pictured in red and white stripes, is not in use at this time. The  FAA has not provided a date for potential certification. Photo by George Garklavs
The remote tower at FNL, pictured in red and white stripes, is not in use at this time. The FAA has not provided a date for potential certification. Photo by George Garklavs

Today, the remote tower in Loveland is the only civilian (non-military structure) in the United States, and according to the FAA, “plans for certification and reopening of the remote tower in 2023 have been delayed due to COVID-19.”


In the meantime, and for more than two years, pilots flying in and out of FNL have been relying on direction from a mobile air traffic control location (colloquially known as the “horse trailer”) that, while staffed by proficient experts, isn’t equipped with what many pilots say they need: Radar.


The mobile tower, currently staffed by the FAA, at FNL. The unit is commonly referred to as,  “the horse trailer.” It is not equipped with radar. Photo by George Garklavs.
The mobile tower, currently staffed by the FAA, at FNL. The unit is commonly referred to as, “the horse trailer.” It is not equipped with radar. Photo by George Garklavs.


The Impact of Holes in the Pilot Safety Net

Rick Turley, an aircraft owner and hangar tenant at FNL, told The Loveland Voice that he narrowly avoided a collision with another aircraft just last week, when his onboard Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) system unexpectedly failed.


“I was departing on my way to North Dakota from Fort Collins and had an ADS-B failure on my own plane,” Turley said. The failure, combined with a lack of radar and a “classic high wing, low-wing” problem resulted in a dangerous blindspot, and the two craft nearly collided.


Mike Fassi, a pilot flying out of FNL who provides air show security also expressed concern about the delay in certification of the remote tower and the lack of a plan in the interim.


“I would like to see the FAA finally get it together and decide if we’re going to keep the virtual (remote) tower or move on to something else, “said Mike Fassi, a pilot who also provides Air Show security at FNL.


“As a pilot, I think it would be a lot safer if we knew what we were dealing with... I think every other pilot feels the same way.”


Loveland City Council Approves Terminal Despite Tower Concerns

On June 6th, Loveland City Council approved contracts for $25 million to build a new terminal at FNL, despite feedback from the public during comment and Mayor Jacki Marsh, who expressed that an air traffic tower with radar would be a wiser investment of federal funds.


Loveland City Manager Steve Adams responded to concerns from local aviation experts and the Mayor about safety, saying:


“... That facility is certified by the FAA. It is manned by certified FAA flight controllers. So, as far as I’m concerned, that’s safe. Now, when you talk about a gap in safety, everyone would like to have the latest gizmos, but the fact of the matter is that pilots fly on sight. Pilots fly by looking around. And they see what’s around. So from my perspective, they’re doing their job.”


- Loveland City Manager Steve Adams, June 6, 2023, City Council Meeting, in Reference to Northern Colorado Regional Airport (04:08;08)


Airport Commission Chair Don Overcash, a Loveland City Councilor, says he trusts the leadership of the FAA in regard to safety. He, and other local leaders say they are excited for the potential of FNL to become a regional transportation hub.


When asked if he had heard of any “near-misses” between aircraft at FNL in recent months, Overcash replied, “Air safety is a very important issue and the FAA is responsible for that. The FAA is on site. I know some people have come to City Council meetings and said things, and I’ve checked with staff. Sometimes people say things that aren’t quite accurate.”


Leaders and pilots differ on whether a safer air traffic control tower or a terminal should come first. Mark Coan, general aviation pilot and commercial airline captain at FNL, says, “(The terminal) is a bridge to nowhere”


Coan is a veteran who served in multiple capacities in the military, including in the role of Interim Accident Investigation Board President (AIB) president.


“The first time you have an accident involving an airplane with 20-30 passengers on it, the National Transportation Safety Board is going to come in. Their first question is going to be, ‘Why haven’t we built a normal tower?”


“Centennial (CO) did,” says Coan. “Why are we building a terminal with no airline? Five airlines have left in the past ten years... Allegiant pulled out because there is no control tower. If you want to build it (a terminal) you need to put in a control tower.”


A student in flight school at FNL who requested anonymity said, “In all reality they can build as much of a terminal that they want, but the airport is only so big, and they are building around it. There are more risks when you mix general aviation with commercial flights. To be a true Delta airspace like Centennial, I think you would need a manned tower with radar. Not a virtual tower, or a mobile tower.”


“I think the flight schools would have something to say about moving to a more commercial mode as well,” he added.


This is Part I of a multi-part series exploring how issues impacting FNL and the northern

Colorado aviation industry are impacting residents in Loveland and Fort Collins. Follow

The Loveland Voice on Facebook for updates.

*FNL is jointly owned by the Cities of Loveland and Fort Collins, and governed by an Airport

Commission, chaired by Loveland City Councilman Don Overcash.

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