FAA Air Traffic Controllers have been there for us on Christmas, in the wee hours of boring weekdays, etc. Towers are shutting down, now, one by one, as coronaplague sweeps over the nation. Las Vegas, one of the world’s busiest airports (1500 operations per day), is no longer towered (US News). Here’s the NOTAM:
SVC TWR CLSD CTC LAS VEGAS APP CLR 125.9, CTAF 119.9 OR 725-600-7015. 19 MAR 17:44 2020 UNTIL 27 MAR 07:00 2020. CREATED: 19 MAR 17:44 2020
What happens when there is no control tower? That’s actually the normal condition at most U.S. airports, but not at airports where jets arrive on IFR flight plans every few minutes. AOPA publishes a good explanation of how pilots in radio-equipped aircraft (remember that some people fly antique airplanes with no electrical systems and no radios) are trained to do this. One key is broadcasting one’s intentions on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). However, it is kind of a lost art among airline pilots, accustomed to talking to ground controller, tower controller, departure controller, center controller, …, center controller, approach controller, tower controller, ground controller.
Listen to the Vegas airplanes at liveatc.net (“KLAS Tower (Both)” and perhaps also the ATIS to see how the tower closure is conveyed via audio). Note that the tower frequency generally reverts to a CTAF whenever the tower is closed.
SVC TWR CLSD CLASS C SERVICE NOT AVBL CTC CHICAGO APP FOR IFR CLR 847-289-1326/READY FOR TKOF FREQ 119.45/IFR CANCELLATION FREQ 119.45. 19 MAR 01:42 2020 UNTIL 18 APR 23:59 2020. CREATED: 19 MAR 01:42 2020
Uncontrolled airports can be pretty busy and can handle quite a few flights as pilots separate themselves. But this depends on (1) planes being light enough not to interfere with each other via wake turbulence, and (2) aircraft not coming in and departing under instrument flight rules (IFR) in which only one plane can use the airport at a time. (The Approach controllers can’t guarantee separation if they authorize one airplane to take off and one to arrive, for example.)
[I did this exactly once during my brief airline career, flying regional jets for Delta. We were delayed for hours out of JFK (also on the potential list for a tower shutdown) by thunderstorms and the usual JFK afternoon/evening “international push”. A heavy Airbus to Europe gets priority over a regional jet to Burlington, Vermont. Currently, KBTV Tower is open 5:30 am to midnight. I don’t remember exactly when we arrived, but it was after Tower was closed and therefore we had to turn on the runway and taxiway lights ourselves (5 clicks on the microphone to activate “pilot-controlled lighting”), announce our position to other traffic (a bizjet landed shortly before we did), fly the visual approach (maneuver the plane by looking out the window), and look out for anyone else who might be on the taxiways.]