Mobile tower could help guide planes at Leesburg Executive Airport after FAA shuts down off-site system in June

With a June deadline posing the possibility that the ever-growing number of corporate jets and small planes at Leesburg Executive Airport would have to take off and land without guidance from air traffic controllers, the Federal Aviation Administration and Leesburg, Virginia, officials are considering stopgap measures.

The Leesburg Town Council will be briefed Tuesday evening on the latest attempt to help the airport maintain air traffic control operations until it is able to build a traditional brick and mortar tower.

Since 2015, the company that works with Leesburg Executive Airport, Saab, has been operating an experimental remote tower system for air traffic control.

remote tower system uses radar and cameras that are located away from the airport to help air traffic controllers direct planes to land and take off. An RTS takes the place of towers built on airport grounds.

Recently, however, the FAA has called for stiffer requirements for air traffic control. After a series of decisions by Saab, the FAA announced it would end the RTS program on June 14.

According to a staff report prepared for the Tuesday meeting, the FAA have “verbally agreed” to set up and staff a Mobile Air Traffic Control Tower until Sept. 30, 2023, as a replacement to the Remote Tower Program that is currently scheduled to be terminated this June.

A Mobile Air Traffic Control Tower — or MATCT — is a transportable cabin, outfitted with systems required to monitor and guide air traffic. The units are often used by the military, to quickly establish and maintain air traffic control.

Although most airports in rural areas operate safely without the air traffic controllers — including the Leesburg airport, until five years ago —  going back to not having them at Leesburg would pose safety and economic risks, according to the staff report.

“Since air traffic control services began in 2018, the airport has seen a 47% increase in traffic, demonstrating that the level of safety provided by the ATC fosters economic growth of the airport and its businesses,” the report said.

The owners of corporate jets prefer to take off and land at airports with ATC — an important lure for Loudoun County’s economy.

According to the staff report, the town, FAA, and federal legislators are working to identifying funding sources to fund ATC and the Mobile Air Traffic Control Tower after September 2023, until a permanent tower facility can be constructed. A contract to lease a MATCT and to staff it with air traffic controllers is estimated at $720,000 per year.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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