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Montana's oldest air traffic control tower went about its business Tuesday, as the airspace west of Missoula filled with jets and planes, choppers and change.

The latter element was marked by the knot of people gathered for a noon-time groundbreaking ceremony in the untrammeled southern reaches of Missoula International Airport's 3,000 acres.

There, by August 2012, a modern tower will rise 100 feet in the air and replace a building and electronics systems that Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey said have grown "antiquated" since the tower was commissioned on Groundhog Day of 1962.

With its octagonal configuration and glass panel exterior, the new $6.77 million tower will serve as "an enduring feature of the Missoula landscape," said county auditor Barbara Berens, who chairs the airport authority board.

The short ceremony, replete with 16 hard-hatted, golden-shovel-wielding representatives of the airport board, staff and the Federal Aviation Administration, didn't necessarily break new ground. Knife River has already begun the "flat work," laying power, water, sewer lines and expanding an access road to the site.

The construction phase will be put out to bid in late summer, and the final phase, meant to outfit the tower with communications, radar and airfield lighting control systems, will launch in mid-2011, Carey said in a short address in a stiff east breeze.

The target date for completion is based on the date last year the FAA provided the money, airport director Cris Jensen explained.

"We signed an agreement that said we would have the facility operational three years after they gave us the money, and so August of 2012 would be the expiration of that three years," Jensen said. "We hope and expect that it would be operational before that. We'd say summer of 2012 is probably more likely."

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The airport last year selected the team of Morrison Maierle Inc. and William E. Payne and Associates to manage design and construction of the project.

The site selected is some 1,100 yards southeast of the current tower, which sits atop the airport terminal building and thus has limited capacity for expansion or modification. It's also 1,400 feet from the main runway. That and its north-facing orientation will give air traffic controllers a better view of things without so much sun in their eyes.

We were in the days of transistor tube electronics when the current tower was built - "and we're still dealing with some of those systems," Jensen said.

The greenhouse effects of the old tower's tinted glass tend to make both air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter a challenge. Indeed, the air conditioning system was problematic in the tower as early as 1964, said Missoula historian Jan Taylor, a researcher of the Missoula airport.

A few minor blind spots in private aviation lots will be eliminated with the new location and slightly higher tower. Air traffic controllers now sit at the 61-foot level. They'll be at 76 feet in their new digs.

An even taller tower was originally planned, Jensen said. Once an environmental assessment and computer analysis were completed early this year, "we found that we could go a little shorter than we originally thought, which is kind of nice thing," he said. "Then it doesn't become such a view issue."

The tower was originally slated to be an FAA project, Jensen said, "but for them to do it, it was going to be a lot more expensive and it was going to take a lot longer."

The FAA wouldn't have been ready to begin the design phase until 2014, he added.

"So they had long ago asked the airport to take this project on, and the airport gladly did so," he said.

The buzz of construction at Missoula International has been a constant. Even as ground was broken for the control tower on Tuesday, crews were resurfacing the east end of Taxiway Alpha, a project that began last week. It will involve no runway closures, but the original plan to resurface the west end of Taxiway Alpha would have. That project has been postponed until next year, or until federal funding becomes available.

As welcome as a new control tower will be, Jensen said the infrastructure introduced on the south side of the airport could prove to be just as important. It paves the way for the addition of hangars and other structures where now there are only open fields.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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