JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —
One of the oldest military airfield towers in the United States, located at Joint Base San Antonio-Kelly Field, is on track to be replaced for a much needed, updated tower that could come as early as 2019.
The $10 million construction project for the air tower at Kelly Field is being funded by Military Construction dollars, according to Lt. Col. Patrick K. McClintock, commander of the 502nd Operations Support Squadron.
“If we didn’t have an air traffic control tower, or the air control tower were to shut down for unknown reasons — infrastructure, air conditioning or equipment failure — then basically, we wouldn’t be able to provide safe separation for the air traffic and then we’d have to shut [the airfield] down,” said McClintock.
The tower cab is presently 230 square feet round, designed for three people instead of five that other towers can accommodate. Two air traffic controllers are usually designated for each shift. The tower utilizes 30 military employees, five civilian employees, and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the exception of some federal holidays.
During this continuous operation, problems can arise that affect the tower’s mission.
One recurring problem that will be temporarily fixed while the new tower is being built is the air conditioning. With San Antonio’s hot climate and the tower’s old air conditioning system, conditions are not ideal.
“As we all know San Antonio temperatures are very hot. [If] our air conditioning fails again this summer and it is on its last legs, then when it fails we’d have to get a portable tower and it might take a couple of weeks,” McClintock added.
Temperatures inside the cab can easily exceed 100 degrees, which causes equipment to overheat and air traffic controllers to work in taxing conditions. McClintock said the new air conditioning unit will help tower operations continue through the next two summers until the new facility is ready for use.
When the tower is shut down, both sides of the runway are affected, according to Port San Antonio President and CEO Roland C. Mower.
“When they shut the tower down, they shut the field down,” Mower added, since Kelly Field is one of the Department of Defense's joint-use airfields.
An additional $10 million in state funds has also been approved to build an airport operations complex adjacent to the new tower and refurbish some nearby buildings. Port San Antonio applied for that grant to further support the joint partnership between JBSA-Lackland and itself since Kelly Field supports both military and commercial operations.
“Any company coming in on this side that’s going to use the airfield wants to know they can get product in and out, whatever that product is,” said Mower.
Port San Antonio also financed a site study for the new tower, according to McClintock.
“You sit down with air traffic control experts, you sit down with engineering experts, and you really kind of analyze where is the best location on the airfield to put a control tower,” he said.
Some considerations included how high the tower would be, what angle it would be and what was the best place to position it against glare.
“[We] took that sighting study and it provided us with a solid foundation on how to design that tower, McClintock added.
Currently the project is about 35 percent complete as plans for a simulation room, a training room for future air traffic controllers, and office space are figured out to the last square inch.
“I have the second oldest tower in the Air Force. It is ridiculously old,” said Master Sgt. Adam White, tower chief controller at Kelly Field.
The existing tower was designed in the 1960s and built in the early 1970s. White said back then there was no computer networking or electronic equipment that the tower uses today.
Since most new air traffic control towers cost about $15 million, White is doing everything possible to use existing furniture and working tower equipment to keep costs down.
“If everything goes as planned, the design finalization should occur somewhere around the middle of May,” said White. It will go for bid and I think three or four months — October — if [the bid] is accepted…that’s when we’re going to start.”
That start includes the demolition of surrounding buildings to make way for the new tower, which will be constructed near to the existing one.
For now weekly conference calls are held to firm up or resolve any issues that may arise as the new tower goes through these initial steps. When it’s time to break ground, both JBSA-Lackland and Port San Antonio will have jumped through a lot of hoops to arrive at this point.
“Basically [Port San Antonio] are our customer. Our customer expects something out of us,” said White. “It’s a partnership. It’s a dance. [Port San Antonio is] here because these guys helped us get this far. They’re in here because they have an interest in the future of the airfield.”
The air traffic control tower is expected to be completed by the summer of 2020.