Maxwell's towering need: Control tower set for upgrade

April 14, 2014
Representative Roby In The News

Seven seconds may not seem like a long time to some, but for a military pilot who has just lost sight of his control tower, it’s all the time he needs for something to go terribly wrong.

It’s the danger that pilots have at Maxwell Air Force Base because of an antiquated and misplaced air traffic control tower, and it’s a problem U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, hopes to fix with the first House Appropriations Committee bill passed for fiscal year 2015.

The 2015 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill approved $71.5 billion in discretionary funding for maintaining base infrastructure, training and equipping troops, providing housing and services to military families and for veterans’ benefits and programs.

The bill specifically emphasized the need to replace air traffic control towers that have structural, mechanical or electrical deficient components, such as the one at Maxwell.

Controlling about 14,000 flights a year, Maxwell’s tower oversees the second busiest distinguished visitor runway in the Air Force as speakers from all over the world visit to speak at Air University.

However, part of the runway is blocked from the tower’s view, according to Master Sgt. Libbin, chief of operation for the tower, and to traffic control officer, Airman 1st Class Anthony Morris.

“We have these hangars over here at our assault landing zone where aircraft usually touch down, but we can’t see it because the hangars are right there,” Morris explained. “We cannot give them a clearance to land in case there are vehicles there.”

In other words, pilots are on their own, Libbin said.

Funding from the bill would allow base operation and engineering groups to construct a taller tower on the other side of the hangars for full visibility of each runway.

A new tower also would solve several maintenance and safety issues.

Built in 1955, the tower is the second-oldest in the Air Force. Maxwell’s air traffic control tower contains original lead-based paint, asbestos, poor heating and cooling systems and fire hazards.

The tower’s demolition should be high on the Department of Defense’s list so that a new one can be constructed, Roby said.

“I’ve personally climbed up the tower at Maxwell, and can attest to how badly it needs replacing,” Roby said. “Budgets are certainly tight and changes might not be possible overnight, but it is our responsibility to highlight these needs in the appropriations process.”

Roby has visited Maxwell several times since February 2013 for tours of the base. Col. Trent Edwards, commander of the 42nd Air Base Wing, showed her firsthand the tower’s hazards and ineffectiveness.

“I’m very pleased with the language in this bill that directs the Pentagon to take a closer look at these old and decaying towers and the one at Maxwell is certainly one of them,” Roby said.

At 75 feet, the tower has a simple construction and a single spiral staircase leading up six flights. The eighth and top floor control center can only be reached by ladder.

The base engineering chief for the 42nd ABW, Mickey Allen, described the hazards of such a dated construction.

“If you had a fire somewhere in the building and you get in the stairwell, you’re not protected ... all you have is a spiral staircase,” Allen said. “In a newer facility you would have an elevator, you would also have that stairwell protected by fire retardant materials and you’d have time to get down.”

Currently, the tower’s sole escape route is a netted shoot that enables trapped personnel to slide from the top floor to the ground in case of fire.

Full demolition and replacement of the tower would cost $9.5 million, according to Allen.

Allen’s team is ready to build as soon as the project is approved by Congress and are currently competing with 18 other wings to get funding for military construction projects.

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