Yakima Airport Air Traffic Controllers Use Temporary Facility to Direct Pilots After Car Crash

June 15, 2022

Jun. 14—It's been a challenge for the Yakima Air Terminal's full-time air traffic controllers to move from the recently damaged tower to a temporary Federal Aviation Administration trailer.

But with all four of them having served as air traffic controllers in the Navy or Air Force, they have taken the challenges of the temporary Yakima airport situation in stride.

"We're all retired military air traffic controllers, so we've all been through difficult situations before," said Robert Davis, an Air Force veteran, as he worked in the FAA trailer on Tuesday morning.

"Yeah, like an aircraft carrier," added his colleague, Bobby Wright, a veteran of the U.S. Navy.

The temporary trailer became necessary after a fatal car crash on May 20, which caused structural damage to the airport's air traffic control tower, located just south of Washington Avenue and just east of the 24th Avenue intersection.

Yakima police reported that Vance Terrell Jourdan III, 19, was speeding on West Washington Avenue sometime before 3 a.m. May 20 and lost control of his BMW at the curve near the airport, crashing into two transformers outside the airport. The car hit the tower a few feet off the ground. A tire that flew off the vehicle hit the tower about 15 feet off the ground, city officials said.

A Yakima County sheriff's deputy estimated Jourdan's speed at between 80 and 90 mph, police said. Jourdan died from his injuries. A 23-year-old man who was a passenger in the vehicle also was injured, and has since been released from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

The crash and resulting power outage caused the airport to cancel all commercial flights that day and temporarily affected National Weather Service monitoring, with FAA inspectors finding that structural support beams inside the control tower were damaged in the crash.

Since then, the FAA provided a mobile trailer that is parked on the western portion of the airport grounds to keep air traffic operations going, said Jaime Vera, acting Yakima airport manager.

"This (trailer) is accommodating our air traffic operations — we're OK for now — but it's a temporary solution," Vera said Tuesday morning. "We're definitely looking forward to a more permanent solution."

Vera said he will be meeting with FAA officials in the next few weeks to see what form that solution will take. For the near future, the equipment used in the mobile trailer could be moved into the 1950s-era air traffic control tower which sits atop the passenger terminal.

"That would buy us more time for a new tower," Vera said of using the terminal facility. "(A new tower) is not a six-month build — it would require FAA approval, then we would need time for design, the bidding process, construction ... it's a year-and-a-half, minimum."

One benefit of the terminal tower, Vera said, is although it's about half the height of the damaged air traffic control tower (which was built in 1972), it would be an improvement over the FAA trailer, which sits at ground level.

Being at ground level is among the reduced capabilities of working in the FAA trailer, air traffic controller Davis said Tuesday.

"We can't see the entire length of the (north-south) runway, and because we can't see it, we can't guarantee there's nothing on that runway," Davis said. "So we try to use the east-west runway."

The lack of height in the trailer also limits radar and radio contact with aircraft coming over Ahtanum Ridge, since that contact requires aircraft to be within the control tower's line of sight, Davis said. There are also fewer dedicated phone lines available. In the damaged tower, there were four or five of them, while one smartphone line is available in the FAA trailer.

Despite the limitations, Wright said he and his fellow air traffic controllers — Davis, Roy Rutherford and Mark Nelson — remain able to assist pilots in aircraft ranging from small propeller planes to commercial planes with their arrivals and departures from Yakima.

"Safety continues to be our No. 1 priority," Wright added.

It's most important during the summer months, which tend to see the most air traffic, Davis noted. While Yakima Air Terminal averages 110 operations a day year-round, there are fewer flights during the winter months or on windy days such as Monday of this week, due to the difficulty those conditions pose for smaller aircraft such as Cessnas.

"We are still communicating with aircraft and we can sequence and separate aircraft (arriving and departing), just like we do in the tower," Davis added.

Vera believes the FAA will have answers about future air traffic control tower options in the near future.

"It's important for us to keep the FAA appraised with the challenges of using this temporary setup," he said. "We are still waiting for the FAA to make a final decision on whether they are going to fix the damaged tower or relocate and build a new one.

"If the money is available to build a new tower, I think they'll pull the trigger on it," Vera added. "Then the next step would be where we would locate it."

Contact Joel Donofrio at [email protected].


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