Peter O. Knight Airport & Pilot Safety
Peter O. Knight Airport (TPK) is located in Tampa on Davis Islands. Its two asphalt runways (3,580 by 100 ft. and 2,688 by 75 ft.) are only five minutes from downtown Tampa, seven miles to the southwest of Tampa International Airport (TPA) and 6 miles to the northwest of MacDill Air Force Base. As the aeronautical shows, the density of these three and other nearby airports results in highly restricted airspace; that is the pilots can enter this airspace only if they’re granted permission by those airports’ control towers.
TPK was constructed under a Works Progress Administration; from 1935 to 1945 it was Tampa’s main airport. It is now dwarfed by TPA, but still handles about 66,000 GA flights annually or an average of 180 per day.
That’s sufficiently low enough traffic to put in a category ineligible for FAA staffing of a tower. The users of this airport, however, argue that TPK should have a tower. Here are a few of their examples:
- Since 2009, pilots on five occasions have reported narrowly avoiding catastrophes at Peter O. Knight, including three near midair collisions between planes during takeoffs or landings. In each case, there was a failure to properly communicate.
- The channel also was the site of a crash investigated by the NTSB in 2008. A pilot didn’t see the mast of a sailboat while landing and hit it, injuring two.
- A 2014 safety handbook from the airbase on avoiding midair collisions said Peter O. Knight “presents the greatest potential for conflict” with MacDill planes and it urged civilian pilots to “exercise extreme vigilance and caution…nearly realized in 2011, when a plane from Peter O. Knight flew into the path of a C-17, a large, four-engine military transport plane. Neither plane was harmed.
- MacDill’s runway lines up almost perfectly with one at Peter O. Knight, and the two airports “are often mistaken or confused” with each other, the handbook said.
- In 2012, a civilian pilot headed to Peter O. Knight from Miami accidentally landed without clearance at the airbase, causing security concerns.
- And Air Force pilots aren’t immune to the confusion. In 2012, a tired pilot landed a C-17, with a 170-foot wingspan, on one of Peter O. Knight’s tiny runways instead of at MacDill.
- But on March 18, MacDill’s restrictions may have launched a sequence of events that led to the death of the two pilots, Caporicci and Carreno…About 11:30 a.m. March 18, two planes, a Cessna 172 and the Cessna 340 operated by Caporicci and Carreno, took off at almost the same time on different runways heading toward the intersection point…Disaster still could have been avoided if the pilots had spoken to each other using the ground frequency. Or if there was a tower to direct them.
These are the sort of facts which one might expect to sway the FAA, but as learned by the recent battle over the Federal Contract Tower funding contretemps, TPK may never win such a request. Catalyzed by the Budget Sequestration, the FAA explained that its closure decisions were based largely on a Cost/Benefit Analysis. Though both the Congressional Research Service and the DOT Inspector General concluded that the contract tower option provided an equivalent level of safety at lower costs, the Administration and the FAA are opposed to FCT. To overcome that institutional resistance, TPK would need to present more than episodic evidence.
The FAA has declared Safety Management Systems to be its methodology of choice for determining relative risks and the preferred option. This analytical technique might provide quantitative support for a tower at TPK as it did during the FCT conflict. Its iterative process may identify alternatives other than a tower, like better procedures or communications. If, however, a tower is determined to be the safest/most effective response to these risks, then the fact that Florida has Sen. Nelson as a leader on FAA issues may be of substantial assistance.
One immediate approach may be to seek to have Saab Sensis install its a remote tower at TPK. That company created a technological system which allows a controller at some centralized facility to provide the ATC support to a remote tower. That level of service would be equal to that which a manned visual tower would have provided. The Saab Sensis has been operated in Europe and certificated there. Leesburg, VA is US test site for this new approach. It is less expensive and if its past performance is reliable, it can attain the same level of safety. This option may IMMEDIATELY save lives at an airport for which a tower solution may require years of debate.
The TPK case appears to merit further review. A Safety Risk Analysis may be a good predicate to a request for a tower, a Saab Remote Tower or some other safer alternative.