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Sequester could force Felts Field control tower to close

Published On: Feb 27 2013 08:32:20 PM CST   Updated On: Feb 27 2013 08:53:21 PM CST
Flying over Spokane

There's a list to cross off when flying a plane. Fuel, flaps, oil temperature are items Tom Morris has checked off for every flight he's piloted for 43 years.

"We're ready if you guys are ready," Morris said to us sitting in the cockpit.

Morris is the Vice President of the Washington Pilots Association.

"We're listening to (the control) tower on 132.5," he said pointing to the dashboard of the Cessna.

Once Morris cleared our flight pattern over downtown with the tower, we took off. Right away, controllers advise Morris there is a plane in our area near the hospital.

"Okay, we'll watch for him over the hospital," he responded.

That warning may soon be a thing of the past. Enjoying blissful images of Spokane 3,000 feet above ground, may start feel more like defensive driving down Division Street at rush hour.

The looming massive federal cuts could shut the tower down at Felts Field and seven other Washington airports including fields in Olympia, Tacoma, Everett, Renton, Yakima, Moses Lake, and Walla Walla. Across the United States 100 airports would be affected by the sequester.

"Even though our traffic pattern isn't that busy, they're talking all the time," Morris said about the controllers. "But we don't see anybody."

Moody Flight School made up one-fifth of the almost 53,000 flights in and out of Felts Field last year. The Director of Flight Operations for the school, Jim Conrad, said training students without a tower is undesirable and unsafe.

"To have someone watching your back is huge, and we've had a number of times where the controllers have assisted our students while they're in the air and provided some additional traffic call-outs that have significantly increased the safety of our flying," Conrad said.

Controllers at Felts Field work from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Pilots said they communicate with each other in the air after hours on a frequency specific to the airport and they'll use that if the tower is shut down.

Northwest MedStar has its helicopters based at the airport. They said if the tower closes it will not affect their response times.