March Air Reserve Base’s air traffic controllers feel like they can breathe these days. They can even stretch out their arms without impeding the view of their control tower colleagues.
They recently moved into a newly constructed tower at the base. The $16 million structure is six feet shorter than the old tower, but it’s wider, with 27 percent more floor space and bigger windows.
The 360-degree view from their perch above the runway takes in C-17 cargo planes parked in rows to the south, KC-135 refueling planes at the north end of the tarmac and small civilian planes in between. Beyond, the hills of Riverside and Moreno Valley and the San Jacinto mountain range provide a scenic backdrop.
Controller supervisor Bob Pierce said the workers are appreciating the new space.
“It’s so much bigger and more up to date and an overall better working environment,” Pierce said. “It’s been a big morale boost for everybody here.”
No longer do the controllers, who track about 100 planes per day, feel as though they’re sitting in each other’s laps, he said.
“We’ve added a few tower displays that allow each position to keep an eye on the airspace,” Pierce said, noting that each of the two controllers on duty has a dedicated screen, rather than sharing a screen as they did in the old tower.
“It provides a safer environment for aircraft flying around in the area,” Pierce said.
Air Force Col. Mark E. Sigler, commander of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing Operations Group, said the new tower makes March “a more attractive base in terms of its strategic and operational importance.”
The old tower and its offices housed not only air traffic control, but also base operations, aircrew communications and the weather station. With the addition of 4,000 square feet, the new complex incorporates more office space for air crew intelligence, radar approach control, radar and radio maintenance and transient alert, which handles logistics for departing and arriving crews and passengers. The personnel capacity has gone from 29 to 59.
In an email, Sigler said the consolidation reduces costs for the base. Because of its modern communications infrastructure, the new tower can more easily adapt to changes, he said.
“(It) improves the base’s current capabilities and provides opportunities to support new missions in the future,” he said.
Chris Davis, the airfield operations manager, has been at the base 18 years. He saw the project through from its inception about a dozen years ago, he said. It took 10 years of pushing the idea to get Congress to approve funding for the new tower.
It was necessary because the old tower, built in 1958, was difficult to retrofit with new technology and did not meet seismic standards.
“We got just about everything we wanted, but it was very tough,” Davis said. “You only get allocated so much money. Our radar facility almost didn’t get in.”
The radar facility is not expected to move into the tower until mid-July, Davis said. It is operating in an aged building just south of the new tower. That building will be torn down after the move is complete.
Davis laments that there wasn’t space for a lobby for passengers – there is a crew lounge and a break room – but an effort was made to make the space as efficient as possible, he said. There even are offices on the lower levels of the tower itself.
“We’ve got people everywhere,” he said.
The tower was built by Flintco of Oklahoma. The company is removing asbestos from the old tower before demolishing it.
In addition to the traffic landing and taking off at March, the tower controls a swath of inland airspace that reaches as far south as Fallbrook and handles traffic for airports in French Valley, Hemet and Perris.
Anthony Gomez, a meteorological technician, said in the old tower, weather operations were split between two offices. If there was active weather to report, the workers would have to scramble back and forth.
The operations now are consolidated in a single room and Gomez has something he never had before. He can look out a window and see the weather.
(This story was originally published in the July 5 edition of The Press-Enterprise)