The FAA informed the staff at the Leesburg Executive Airport (JYO) that they were canceling the Remote Tower Program (RTC) and ending ATC services for the airport on June 14, 2023. The program began in March 2015 and has continuously provided ATC services for the airport, ten hours a day (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.), since June 2018.
Defense and security company SaaB, the Virginia SATSlab (VSATS) and JYO partnered to test Saab remote tower technologies at the airport. The partnership tested technologies like HD video cameras, pan-tilt-zoom cameras, signal light guns and microphones to directly provide data to the RTC. Data from the RTC and mobile air traffic control tower (MATCT) are sent out simultaneously for safety redundancy and data comparison, JYO said.Leesburg Executive Airport at Godfrey Field
Testing by FAA-certified control tower operators began in 2016 and in the following two years a temporary mobile tower was installed and testing between the remote and on-site mobile tower took place. A 20-year lease was signed with Loudon County in 2019 for space for a permanent location for the RTC and the FAA funded a build-out of the tower in 2020. In September 2021 the FAA issued a memo regarding the operational viability of the remote tower and in February 2022, the FAA funded the installation of STARS Radar in the RTC.
The FAA had communicated a plan to transition the tower program from NextGen to the federal contract tower program and it extended its authorization for Robinson Aviation controllers to continue through Dec. 1, 2023. On Feb. 7, 2023 Saab sent a letter to the FAA, stating it would no longer pursue the technical certification for its current system at JYO due to new System Design Approval criteria imposed by the FAA in 2021. On Feb. 21, the FAA let Leesburg know it would end the program and cease ATC services by June 14.AOPA graphic
The town of Leesburg is working with stakeholders and legislators to ensure ATC services are still provided, stating the end of the RTC program is a major safety concern. The AOPA is also urging the FAA to reconsider the removal of services and instead provide a solution.
"It is very concerning that the FAA would move in this direction, especially given the substantial increase in traffic in and around Leesburg airspace," AOPA President Mark Baker said. "The decision to have no tower doesn't make sense and I strongly encourage the FAA to reconsider its position given the safety implications. I have visited the remote tower in Leesburg and found it to be very impressive."Old map of Leesburg Airport
Leesburg airport, just under 35 miles from Washington D.C., is a busy general aviation airport in the D.C. Metropolitan area and a reliever for Washington Dulles International Airport. The airport had its start in 1918 when a WWI plane landed on a grassy field on a farm. It became a privately-run airfield after the war and after substantial growth in the county over the years, the town of Leesburg took over airport control in 1993 and is now home to about 300 private and corporate aircraft. Located in the third-most populous county in Virginia, just outside a major metropolitan area like D.C., the airport remains a busy GA hub.
"The Leesburg airport is doing north of 80,000 operations per year in highly complex and size-restricted airspace because we are right by Dulles," Leesburg Airport Manager Scott Coffman said to the Virginia Department of Aviation. "We have a mix of flight training, corporate jets and helicopter activity all in a small piece of airspace. The tower is keeping our airport flowing efficiently and keeping everyone safe."
Coffman and other stakeholders presented to the FAA, urging them to reconsider. Many worry that the removal of the RTC and ATC services would increase the potential for aircraft accidents. The airport also is within the Washington Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), which is a roughly 30-mile circular zone around D.C. that surrounds a flight-restricted-zone (FRZ). Removing the tower can eliminate the crucial communications needed to resolve security issues. Many have felt that the FAA statement about many GA airports operating safely without a tower does not account for the large traffic volume and the airspace restrictions at the airport.
In the presented action plan, the end date was requested to be pushed to Dec. 31 at the earliest, to allow for parties to find a reasonable solution and path forward. If an extension is not possible, a request was made for the FAA to place a temporary tower at the airport and continue providing ATC services until an RT system is certified or a new tower is built and deemed operational. If the program is ultimately canceled, the airport requests funding and a development schedule to build a physical tower.
The FAA sent a letter to Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk, stating the organization understands the frustration but due to safety reasons, there was no other choice to be made. The letter continues, noting that the FAA feels the JYO safety track record will hold up without the tower. With Saab's decision to not pursue approval, the FAA has determined that continued use of the unapproved program poses a level of risk for users. While the FAA has said it is understanding of the goals for stakeholders and the airport, it will only discuss the details in private moving forward and will not support discussion in open forums.
Stakeholders like the AOPA will continue working with the airport authority, legislators and the FAA on a solution. As of now, the end date for the RTC program and ATC services is still June 14.