Pratt pilots respond to potential tower hazard

Gale Rose
More than a dozen pilots regularly use the Pratt Regional Airport  and many are concerned that AT&T could put their lives in danger if plans proceed for a planned cell tower at that facility.

The fate of a proposed AT&T cell tower north of Pratt on NE 40th Street has been put on hold while the possibility of relocating the tower is considered.

A portion of the regular Pratt County Commission Feb. 3 meeting was dedicated to discussing the location of the tower in relation to the Pratt Regional Airport and how it would influence flight patterns at the airport.

The commissioners voted to table a decision on the matter until 5 p.m. on Monday, March 9 at the county commission meeting.

A special use application was filed by AT&T to erect a 260 foot cell tower east of the active runway at the airport. The Pratt County Planning and Zoning Board reviewed the request and, citing safety factors, recommended the permit be denied.

The Pratt County Commissioners have to act on the recommendation and were using a portion of their regular meeting to consider comments from the pilots, airport staff and the AT&T representatives before making their decision.

Several area pilots spoke about the problems the tower would create because of its location in the downwind traffic pattern for landing to the south for runway 17, said Randy Huitt, Fixed-Base Operator.

Location of the tower was the main issue of the meeting. The proposed AT&T tower location was presented to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA reviewed the information and determined there was no hazard to the airport landing pattern, said Glenda Cafer, AT&T counsel.

Since the minimum approach level at the airport is 200 feet, the FAA had to change something to make the tower non-hazardous so they raised the minimums for approaches, Huitt said.

There were also concerns aired that if the minimums were changed, it would minimize the type of aircraft that could use the airport.

County Commissioner Glenna Borho they don't want the airport down graded and asked that Cafer go back to her client to see if another location was available.

Area pilots did not agree with the FAA findings that the tower presented no hazard.

Pilot Tim Barker, who is also chair of the Pratt Regional Airport Authority Board, said the Board has been opposed to the tower from day one. Barker said he had landed at the airport hundreds of times and when flying a plane, seconds are precious especially at low altitudes.

If a plane is making a downwind approach and something should go wrong, there is not adequate time to react to it. Placing a tower in the proposed location would create an additional hazard in the landing process.

"To allow a tower at his point is harmful. The proximity to it (tower) is troublesome," Barker said. "The ability to get lower to the ground is critical. As a pilot, that location is a nightmare."

Pilot Dan Suiter, who is a surgeon, said he has worked on people that had crashed into guy wires and would never for get that.

"This is a travesty waiting to happen," Suiter said.

Cafer said Congress and the Kansas Legislature were determined to expand broadband and wireless service across Kansas and the nation especially in rural areas. There are areas in western Kansas that are under-covered or not covered at all and that is why the tower is needed.

Darin Miller, AT&T area manager, said they already have towers west and south of Pratt and the new tower would help with coverage north of town. Having better access to broadband would benefit businesses and homes.

Several of the pilots said they are in favor of expanding broadband service but its just the location of the tower that is the problem.

Pilot Larry Fenwick said he wanted to know how critical the tower location was to improving service and would it be possible to move it further away from the airport.

"Why is that exact site so critical. What changes to service availability will it make if you move it a little bit," Fenwick said.

Cafer said she had taken notes on each speaker and would present the safety concerns and questions on the location of the tower to AT&T then return with their response.

Robert Ahrens, pilot for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said he has over 18,000 hours in his log book and if an engine should fail on takeoff and a pilot would have to do a circle approach, moving the tower would make a difference

Objections to the tower were accepted during the application process and Cafer said there was one objection filed.

Dea Brown, Pratt Regional Airport Board office manager, said they had sent a letter to the FAA in the required time frame and were told it wasn't worth the paper it was on.

"We sent it within the time frame and they said it didn't matter," Brown said.

There were also concerns aired that if the minimums were changed, it would minimize the type of aircraft that could use the airport.

County commissioner Glenna Borho said they don't want the airport downgraded and asked that Cafer go back to her client to see if another location was available.

When the county commission meets on this issue again in March 19, there are several options. If AT&T does not present an alternative tower location, the county commissioners would vote on the Planning and Zoning Board's recommendation to deny the application.

If the county commissioners vote in favor of the recommendation to deny the application, then AT&T could take the matter to court.

If the county commissioners reject the Planning and Zoning recommendation to deny and vote to approve the application, AT&T would have to apply for a variance to the Zoning Board of Appeals and that has the same members as the Planning and Zoning Board which has already recommended to deny the application.

If AT&T presents an alternative location, the process would start over and AT&T would have to make another special application to the Planning and Zoning Board. Planning and zoning would hold a public hearing and send a recommendation to the county commissioners that would eventually vote to accept or reject the planning and zoning recommendation.