Vandenberg's oldest tower receives makeover

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Danielle Drazin
  • 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
"We're a fully operational airfield on a base that doesn't have a flying focus, like 95 percent of the other bases out there," said Capt. Christopher King, 30th Operations Support Squadron Airfield Operations flight commander. "We will regularly be in meetings where someone will say something about the airfield and the question will be asked, 'We have a runway here?'"

The air traffic controllers separate, sequence and prioritize aircraft that come in and out of the airfield in a delta service area of approximately five miles and 3,000 feet. Additionally, they provide critical air transport capability of high-value assets such as expendable boosters, Centaurs, and fairings for the wing and tenant units.

"We're an integral part of the wing's mission," said Rick Czap, 30 OSS air traffic manager. "A lot of people don't realize that even though there's no assigned, fixed wing aircraft here we still have a lot of aircraft that come in and a lot of different types - not only transient aircraft that are coming in for touch-and-goes for pilot training, but we also get a lot of unique missions."

The ATC team provides support for over 7,000 missions a year. Although this is low compared to their counterparts across the country, they also face a smaller window to conduct operations. While most airfields are open 24/7, Vandenberg's is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed weekends and holidays.

Vandenberg is home to the second largest runway in the Department of Defense, at 15,000 feet, controlled by the oldest tower in the Air Force, built in 1953, which has presented distinctive challenges to the team. Although they hope to get a new tower within the next 10 years, renovation has been underway to the existing structure and will finish March 4, 2014.

"The rust, corrosion and deterioration caused by the ocean air out here take a heavy toll on the building," said Czap. "The last time the building was renovated was in 1992. In just 20 years the catwalk, the railing on the catwalk, and the actual concrete surface has eroded. The roof safety rails and cables, brackets, and antennas are all just completely corroded. It's really bad and these are safety issues and there are some other life-safety flaws that were there. Our stand pipe, a pipe that comes up to the tower was not the correct size for today's fire code. There were a lot of things we wanted to get fixed but we were only able to fix life-safety issues of the tower."

The renovations will put the building back in to compliance with current fire codes. While structural safety is the number one priority, the tower itself will still pose an issue.

"There's a requirement by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force regarding line of sight to the runway," said Czap. "Because the tower was built for an 8,000 foot runway, and in 1983 another 7,000 feet of runway was added to the runway to support space shuttle landings, our position should have changed or we should have gotten a new tower with that back then. That's a flaw that can only be corrected if we get a new structure."

To combat the issue, a video surveillance system will be installed and completed around the same time as the renovations. It will allow the controllers to see the runway surface for wild life, small aircraft, vehicles and personnel. In 2004, the lead engineer for ATC facilities issued a report via the Air Force Flight Standards Agency stating that the tower was deteriorating structurally and the tower should not be renovated anymore. While a new ATC tower is currently number one on the base's Military Construction List, King said funding will not be available in Fiscal Year 2014.

"It's nice being number one on the MILCON list, it's good visibility but most towers get congressional inserts, so they have someone lobbying for them," said King.

Despite these issues, the Vandenberg tower beat out over 140 other facilities worldwide to win the 2012 D. Ray Hardin Air Traffic Control Facility of the Year award.

"The award was good for the controllers; we have a really tight group up in the tower and everyone's really dedicated to working the mission," said Czap. "We have to maintain the airfield to the same standards and the same amount of work goes in to it and inspecting it but we have a lot less people to do that here - both in airfield management and in the tower."