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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Temporary Tower Keeps Planes Flying in Van Nuys

On the west side of Van Nuys Airport sits an L-shaped stack of red-and-white shipping containers. That may not be unusual, but the purpose of these particular containers sets them apart. They make up the temporary air traffic control tower for the airport while the permanent tower undergoes renovations which will take about a year. In fact, a temporary tower made from shipping containers is something new for the Federal Aviation Administration. Traditionally the federal agency has used a trailer set about one-story off the ground as a replacement when tower work is necessary. Tony Marlow, vice president of aviation operations and business development for Castle & Cooke Aviation Services Inc., whose leasehold provides the land for the temporary tower, said the company wanted to be a good neighbor. Castle & Cooke is the closest property to the permanent tower and the FAA wanted to keep the temporary one as close to the permanent one as possible. “Had we not been able to come to some kind of agreement, it would have happened somewhere else, but that would have been a lot more painful for the FAA,” Marlow said. The temporary tower allows the heavy traffic of private planes and helicopters to continue to move in and out of Van Nuys. In September, the airport handled 19,659 aircraft takeoffs or landings, a 9.3 percent increase from the 17,979 operations from the same period a year earlier. Ian Gregor, communications director for the Pacific region of the FAA, said the agency tried to replicate as closely as possible the work environment of the permanent tower. “They use the same equipment, the same radios, the same displays,” Gregor said. “They are tethered from the permanent tower to the temporary tower.” The permanent tower was built in 1968 and is at the point of needing upgrades and improvements to the cab, or the work area the controllers use. Building a new tower was too expensive, carrying a $30 million to $40 million price tag versus $4 million for the upgrades. Flora Margheritis, interim general manager for the airport, said there will be no exterior changes to the tower and that its footprint will remain the same. “Anytime any tenant – and we consider the FAA a tenant of this airport – embarks on a renovation project it is music to our ears, because it is no different than when one is remodeling their home – you leave something old and walk into something new,” Margheritis said. The modifications to the tower have been a long time in coming. It’s been almost six years since air controllers first contacted the office of Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, to tell of the cramped conditions of the tower. Sherman’s office went to the FAA to see about getting a condition assessment on the tower. While Sherman was pushing for a new tower, the FAA decided in late 2012 to do improvements instead. A letter sent to Sherman by then-acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta listed a modernization project as being the most cost effective. “The overall maintenance cost of the facility would decrease due to upgrades to the facility infrastructure such as electrical and heating and cooling systems,” Huerta wrote in the letter. Tight quarters The permanent control tower is about 60 feet high and has enough room to accommodate up to nine controllers and a supervisor. In contrast, the temporary tower is 48 feet high and has space for four controllers and a supervisor in a horizontal work space facing the main runway where aircraft take off and land. Robin Dybvik, the airport’s air traffic control manager, said that even with the fewer positions in the temporary tower it was still better than in the traditional trailers used by the FAA that can accommodate only two controllers and a supervisor. “This one is able to keep our operations as close to normal as possible considering the situation,” she added. Tim Hatfield, front line manager for air traffic control at Van Nuys, said it has been a learning curve for the controllers since moving in two months ago. Going from a tower with relatively more room to one with a tight fit means you have to be on top of your game at all times, he said. “When you have only five people you have to find creative ways to spread the traffic between controllers so one is not overwhelmed and another is sitting doing nothing,” Hatfield added. As Hatfield and the controllers settle in for a year working in a shipping container, construction continues on the adjacent permanent tower. The interior has been totally gutted to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, the electrical systems and for asbestos abatement, Gregor said. He added that a stairwell in the cab was also being repositioned. Moving the stairway will give Hatfield a better eye on the air traffic control operations because as it’s configured now, he must maneuver around it to assist controllers. “With the stairwell being behind the (work area) I am already in the middle of everything that’s going on,” Hatfield said. “It’s going to cut down on my time being able to assist them.” Also, the permanent tower will have slat walls. These are panels that have articulated arms attached to them that hold monitors. They are an improvement over the old method of having the monitors fixed in place in a cabinet, Dybvik said. High-tech containers The management team at Van Nuys Airport played a role in the tower project in several ways, Margheritis said. For one, they facilitated discussions between the FAA and Castle & Cooke. When the aviation firm first started talking with the federal agency, it did not know what the temporary structure was going to look like, Marlow said. “We were surprised by the shipping containers, too,” he added. “It is kind of a cool way of doing thigs.” Secondly, the airport worked with the FAA on safety and security protocols to set up specific travel paths for the controllers and their vehicles to get to and from the tower. Lastly, there were two systems – the pilot control lighting system and emergency phone ringdown system – maintained by Los Angeles World Airports that had to be transferred from the permanent tower to the temporary one. The lighting system is used by pilots arriving or departing during hours when the control tower is not staffed and allows them to turn on the runway lights. The phone ringdown system is used by controllers to alert LAWA and police and fire departments in the event of an emergency. “Everybody gets the information at the same time so we can properly respond,” Margheritis explained. Once the work at the permanent tower is completed and controllers move back in, the shipping containers making up the temporary tower will continue serving that function somewhere else, Gregor said. They can be put onto a flatbed truck and taken anywhere in the country where they are needed, he added, saying, “it is not a one off.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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