A HISTORY OF WESTHEIMER AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL TOWER (OUN)
November 11, 2008
Though he is now retired, Mr. Hargett is shown below during his days as the University of Oklahoma Airport and Research Park Administrator. During the same time frame as this story, Mr. Hargett also helped co-found the Oklahoma Airport Operators Association and remained active with the organization for many years. Photos included courtesy of the University of Oklahoma.
Before beginning this story about the most recent control tower, a preamble is necessary about the early days of Max Westheimer Airport. The purpose of this introduction is to explain the line of air traffic control succession.
In 1940, The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma acquired 160 acres of land to start an airport with a $10,000 gift from the Nuestadt family of Ardmore, Oklahoma. This donation was made in the name of their uncle Max Westheimer; that's how the airport got its name.
About this same time, the City provided the airport with 109 acres of land, in two parcels, adjacent to the University's 160 acres, on a long-term, no-cost lease. As part of this lease agreement, the University agreed it would operate the airport as a municipal airport to benefit the citizens of Norman.
In 1942, the Department of the Navy took control of all the property and expanded it to 1700 acres.
And now comes the rest of the story.
The first air traffic control tower (ATCT) was operated during World War II by the U.S Navy in support of training Naval aviators at what was then know as Max Westheimer Navy Flying Field. At the end of the war, the Navy ceased operation of the tower.
(The original Navy Tower which was operated during WWII. In 1950 it was damaged beyond repair by a tornado and removed from the top of the terminal building.)
On August 3, 1948, the airport and all 1700 acres of property were transferred to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. There were numerous federal restrictions regarding use of the property and the income derived from it, but the ATCT did not return to operation.
The ATCT was destroyed beyond repair by a tornado in 1950. The remnants were removed from atop the terminal building.
(During the time period of 1950 to approximately 1975, the terminal building received a brick facade, but no new tower was erected.)
During the early 1970's, a United States Air Force (USAF) unit from Tinker Air Force Base operated a mobile ATCT. Its purpose was two fold. First, it supported operations at Max Westheimer Airport, as it was then known, and second it provided controllers from the 3rd Mobile Combat Communication Group a location to maintain proficiency. The Chief Controller was Master Sergeant George Armstrong Custer and, yes, he was related to the famous General Custer.
When the USAF could no longer support this requirement, the mobile ATCT was relocated to Tinker for later deployment throughout the world.
About this time, the University hired UNICOM operators to provide airport advisories, but no air traffic control instructions were permitted by this advisory service. As traffic continued to increase, the advisory service was found to be inadequate.
A plywood and Plexiglas box had served as a temporary ATCT for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controllers to use on home football game days when tremendous amounts of air traffic were generated before and after the game. This bare bones plywood facility would become even more important later.
(After the Air Force support left, but before the new tower was erected, the controllers operated from a plywood and Plexiglass box atop the terminal building. This arrangement was difficult on the controllers since the temperatures inside could be stifling.)
Air traffic continued to increase and plans were formulated for the installation and operation of a FAA ATCT. However, those plans were scrapped in the aftermath of the FAA controllers strike in August, 1981. Hopes for an FAA funded control tower were lost.
Shortly thereafter, the Airport and Research Park Administrator, George Hargett, a retired USAF controller himself, approached Dr. Arthur J Elbert, the University's Vice President for Administrative Affairs, about the possibility of funding and operating a university owned non-federal ATCT. These plans were ultimately approved by the Board of Regents with the caveat that the ATCT be funded with oil and gas revenues the airport was receiving from wells on airport property.
Mr. Hargett, with the aid of Norm Scroggins, the FAA Air Traffic Manager for the Oklahoma City Area, requested temporary support from C. R. "Tex" Mellugian, the FAA's Administrator of the Southwest Region in Ft Worth, Texas. Support requested was in the form of loan of radios, altimeter and wind equipment. After some discussion, the equipment loan was approved.
Next, Mr. Hargett hired four additional retired military controllers. After a period of facility training and policy/regulatory development, all five received their FAA Facility Ratings on the first day of operation from that old plywood and Plexiglas box. The first day of operation was July 1, 1982. The Chief Controller was Howard G. House and the three remaining original air traffic control specialists were Ralph E. Johnson, Billy J. Huff and David R. Plante.
Mr. Hargett was assigned the additional duty of Chief, Air Traffic Control Officer (CATCO), with general oversight of the facility, and worked four hours a week in the ATCT to maintain proficiency. Mr. House managed the day to day operation of the facility.
The use of the temporary ATCT was supposed to last only a short period of time until a permanent structure could be obtained.
The initial hours of operation were 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, but soon were expanded to 7:00 am to 10:00 pm. Two additional controllers, Clarence L. Jaynes and Russell Moody, were hired to support the new time frames.
Unfortunately, finding a permanent facility took longer than Mr. Hargett and the controllers had hoped. Prices for a more permanent ATCT were obtained from various commercial sources, but were beyond budgetary limitations. Pursuit of a fixed facility was at a crossroads.
Then, one day, the Hargetts were driving by Tinker AFB and Ms. Chris Hargett mentioned that perhaps the old Tinker ATCT could be obtained from the USAF. This sounded like a good idea, so George Hargett met with the University's Interim Director of Auxiliary Services, Earl Whitman, to run the idea by him and to see what he thought about getting the help of Major General Jay T. Edwards.
A plan was formulated to go through the Base Commander since he is responsible for all the property on the base. When attempting to do this, it was determined the Base Commander was about to retire and an appointment was then made with the new Deputy Base Commander, Lt. Colonel Edward Carr. As it turns out, George Hargett and Lt. Col. Carr were stationed together in Germany and an old friendship was renewed, which couldn't have hurt the project.
Hargett was shown the old tower which sat atop the base operations hangar. To put it mildly, the old facility was in really bad shape. Most of the windows had been broken out and the pigeons had moved in making an awful mess, but the super structure was intact and free of rust and deterioration. The super structure availability would significantly reduce the cost of rehab of the facility.
Lt. Col. Carr mentioned they were going to rehab the hangar and take the old tower off in the process, but, if transfer was approved, it would be the University's responsibility to transport it from Tinker to Westheimer. It would have to be approved by Gen. Edwards. It was believed that transfer of the asset to the university's airport could reap significant public relations benefits to Tinker and the USAF by putting this March, 1943, ATCT back into operation and in support of aviation.
Gen. Edwards ultimately approved the plan and it was a matter of waiting for funding for the hangar rehab project. This took longer than had been hoped but, about two years later, funding was available.
Finally, the day was approaching and Lt. Col. Carr notified George Hargett that Hodges Trucking would be using their crane to lift the old facility off the hangar and place it on the ground. Hodges Trucking was a friend of the airport and the University.
(1984 - The tower cab finally leaves its old home at Tinker and is prepared for its journey to OU Max Westheimer Airport.)
Mr. Hargett next contacted Brigadier General Rogers at the Oklahoma National Guard to see if it was possible for the Guard to provide a sky crane helicopter to airlift the ATCT cab from Tinker to Westheimer. It was determined that since the weight of the cab was unknown, they didn't want to risk it. Instead, the Guard provided a prime tank mover (low boy truck) to assist in moving the facility as a training mission. The moving of the tower by road, instead of by air, posed new problems.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation directed that it be transported under escort by way of US Highway 77 rather than Interstate Highways I-240 and I-35. This was because the cab spanned 28ft wide at the top and it would severely restrict traffic on these heavily traveled routes.
With this in mind, Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E) agreed to accompany the transport. OG&E lifted electric lines along the route while the cab travelled under them. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) provided the escort.
The trip was slow and arduous, but the facility finally arrived at Westheimer. OHP was good enough to bring along their mobile scales, weighing the facility in the following manner. The truck, axle by axle, was weighed with the cab on it, then with it off. The total difference between the two methods then was the weight of the cab. This was an important figure to insure that the top of the terminal building where it was to eventually be placed was stressed for it.
Hodges Trucking again unloaded the cab to a work area next to the terminal building for rehab.
Luck was once again on the airport's side. Everyone was pretty sure the tower wouldn't overstress the terminal building as it previously supported the weight of the old Navy cab.
The University's Architectural and Engineering Services, under the direction of Arthur N. Tuttle, was hired to design the cab rehab project. During this process, they were able to locate the engineer who did the work for the Navy Tower and he still had his calculations. With this aid, it was determined it would work without placing additional supports on the roof of the terminal building. Mr. House provided the operational needs and specifications.
(Following 2 Pictures: After preparations are complete, the tower frame is lifted into place.)
Easy does it!
Home at last!
(Finally the tower cab is set in place in its new home and readied for rehab.)
Once plans were complete, the University's Physical Plant, under the direction of Morris B. Kinder, initiated the rehab, utilizing a variety of trades and craftsmen. The project was paid for totally by airport funds, receiving no monetary funds from the University, City of Norman, or the FAA.
During the rehab, controllers had to move out of the plywood and Plexiglas box as this temporary facility had to be removed to make way for the new. During this interim period, windows were enlarged on the west, north and south sides of the third floor of the terminal building. The controllers would operate from this location for several months until the new facility was ready for occupancy. The major drawback to the third floor location was that no controller visibility was available to most of the eastern half of the horizon. Since all traffic patterns were to the west, it was believed to be a safe venture on a temporary basis.
(The newly refirbished tower is completed and readied for use in 1986.)
In the early spring of 1986, the rehab of the ATCT was accepted as complete and the controllers began operating from it. It is believed interesting that the circular stairway was erected from the third floor through the original hole that was patched when the old tower was removed.
Norm Scoggins often commented that he wished he had such a good facility at Wiley Post Airport which was also under his jurisdiction.
With all the donated assistance, the rehab was completed for the low amount of $145,000.00.
A grand opening ceremony was held below the tower on May 26, 1986. Many aviation enthusiasts and community leaders were on hand. Dr. Arthur J. Elbert, and Colonel Ray Reeves, the new Tinker Base Commander were among the speakers. Lt. Col. Carr was also on hand. After the ceremony, tours of the new facility were available to all.
A few years later, the oil bust hit Oklahoma and surrounding states very hard. The airport budget, dependent on oil and gas revenues to support this operation, became critically short of funds. The primary airport budgets were also in a bad way and general aviation itself dwindled in numbers.
Faced with this funding crisis, Mr. Hargett approached the University’s hierarchy for funding support or at least a loan to get over this financial rough spot. His request was denied because the University itself was experiencing a hard time as a result of the oil bust and downturn in the economy. Further, the University had a long established rule that the airport had to be self sufficient, receiving funding from neither the University nor the City of Norman.
As departmental budget chairperson, it fell to Mr. Hargett to formulate a plan for reduction in forces and other services as necessary. This proved to be a two step process as the economy and oil and gas revenues continued to decline.
In the summer of 1989, two air traffic control specialists, two field maintenance personnel and a computer specialist were either laid off or transferred to other departments. This reduced the number of controllers to four and the hours of operation reverted to 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. Other cuts included transferring the field maintenance function to Physical Plant. These changes brought the airport and research park financial status into the black once again.
During the fall of 1989, the economy and oil and gas revenues, along with other problems, continued to worsen. Once again, Mr. Hargett approached the University and was directed to seek bids from commercial firms to see if any could do the job cheaper. Three bids were received and Midwest ATC Services, Inc. was selected as the successful bidder and awarded the contract for operation of the ATCT commencing August 16, 1990. One of the provisions of the bid was to retain qualified University controllers. Howard House could not be included because he was not medically qualified, a condition of employment. He was given other options, but chose to leave the University and start his own business. Ralph Johnson opted to retire in lieu of going with Midwest ATC.
This left Bill Huff who became the Control Tower Manager and Dave Plante who remained with Midwest. Richard Blouin and Hosea Herlong were hired at this time as replacement controllers. The transfer to Midwest from the University was seamless and the operation continued 8:00 am to 8:00 pm.
It is noteworthy, that even though George Hargett's title of CATCO ceased with the transfer from the University to Midwest ATC, no confidence in the operation was lost which was due to Bill Huff's outstanding relationship with the airport staff.
Shortly after this, the FAA started the Contract Tower Program wherein they contracted out their Level I ATCT's due to the huge manpower shortage created by the controller's strike and large number of firings.
George Hargett continually solicited support for Westehimer's ATCT to be included in the program and receive federal funding, although the program was originally designed for FAA facilities. His FAA associates, while sympathetic, could only offer helpful advice.
Mr. Hargett then contacted U.S. Senator Don Nichols to solicit his support. Sen. Nichols was successful in getting an amendment into legislation, including the funding citation, for Westheimer ATCT to be included in the FAA's Contract Tower Program.
In October, 1991, the University accepted the first federal funds for Westheimer ATCT and was considered a sole source tower by the FAA. This funding was later increased permitting the return to expanded hours of operation and an increased number of controllers.
During this period, David Plant became the Control Tower Manager and Bill Huff retired from full time service. Bill continued to work part time, splitting a shift rotation with Chuck Jaynes until Plant became ill. At this time Bill went back full time and finally retired with 24 ½ yrs of service in Westheimer Tower. He loved working there so much, he considered being a controller there a hobby rather than a job. The controllers that came and went throughout the years are Charles Woods, Chuck Jaynes (rehired), Georgette Barnett, A.J. Fields, Brian Ammons, Sherie Ewert, Casamir Tabaka, Jeremy Clayton, Phillip Miner, Craig Roderique, Joseph Van Cooten, Brian Wakley, and Sheldon (Kris) Rogers.
October 1, 2007, FAA combined all sole source towers into the regular FAA Contract Tower Program and Robinson Aviation (RVA) Inc. absorbed Westheimer ATCT into their contract with the FAA.
A number of equipment improvements and additions took place including installation of radar display (first the airport installed the TARDIS-Terminal Area Radar Display Information System in 2000 and 2004 it was updated by the FAA’s STARS- Standard Terminal Automated System), flight data system- FDIO in 2000, ACE IDS in 2000, new digital voice recorders- Jan. 2004 replaced the old 24 hour reel tape system that had operated for over 20 years.
The FAA maintains FAA installed equipment. However, the University remains responsible for overall facility maintenance.
The tower interior was refurbished in 2004 from aviation tax money that Roy Oliver designated when he purchased a new Bombardier Challenger. Part of the refurbishing was replacing the old police console with a made-to-order console and new radios and touch screen controls. The old lighting control panel was also updated with touch screen controls.
(The entrance to the University of Oklahoma Max Westheimer Airport as it appears today. The air traffic control tower, formerly located at Tinker Air Force Base, appears in the background.)
Sherie Ewert became the Control Tower Manager following the medical retirement of David Plante in June 2005.
In closing, it is appropriate to recognize the passing of two former air traffic managers. Howard House died October 12, 2004, and David Plante passed away May 31, 2006. Their contributions to safety of flight through the application of sound air traffic control management principles and foresight were immeasurable.