Photo Gallery: Flying High with Bob Wire

By BOB WIRE

My preparation for touring Missoula Airport’s brand new air traffic control tower included not wearing underwear.

Slip-on sandals, elastic-waist pants, a loose t-shirt and an honest face were all I wore to the public tour and dedication ceremony of the new, $6.5 million, state-of-the-art tower. I was pretty sure security would be tight, and that might mean a strip search. Or worse, a background check.

But there was nothing I could do about the latter, so, driving commando, I wheeled into the crushed asphalt RV parking lot a quarter mile east of the airport, and piled into a 15-passenger Chevy van they’d rented for the occasion. This is good, I thought, a smaller crowd than I thought. Manageable.

Five minutes later the van pulled off the access road and we disembarked to join the 200 or so people who were already there. Three more vans passed us on their way back to pick up the still-arriving crowd. I wondered if all of them were wearing underwear.

These thoughts were swiped from my head when no security personnel materialized at the new tower. Oh, there were people wearing laminates around their necks, dressed in Airport-blue golf shirts and Dockers, running around answering questions, handing out brochures, and serving cake. But nobody seemed too worried about searching any of the attendees, or even watching anyone particularly closely.

I would soon find out why.

After twenty minutes of speechifying from various officials, including Airport director Cris Jensen, about fifteen people who were involved with the planning, creation, and various systems involved in the tower reached under their folding chairs facing the crowd and grabbed a pair of scissors that had been planted there by an operative. Finally, I thought. Some action.

The fifteen people rose from their chairs and walked over to the long red ribbon that blocked the walkway to the tower, and clipped it in one simultaneous, symbolic snip with an implement that would never be allowed aboard any commercial flight to anywhere.

Knowing that a mob of more than twenty people will never wait for any official announcements of when to go or stay, I leaped off my perch on a streetlight base and trotted over to the walkway just ahead of the surging crowd. I was the third person through the door.

As I began to climb the narrow zigzag stairs, I got a familiar feeling, although I’d never been anywhere near an airport tower, much less climbed up to the cab at the top. I brushed aside the nagging déjà vu and turned the corner to the entry door of the cab on the sixth floor. The door was situated, I saw, so that it was at an angle and could not be attacked with a battering ram. You know, in case some nut job wanted to break into the cab and force the controllers to make a plane land on the south runway instead of the north one.

The new control tower at the Missoula International Airport.

The Missoula Airport’s new air traffic control tower, six stories high, $6.5 millionwide.

Anyway, that subtle security design (pointed out by my pilot friend Ray) aside, I walked unimpeded into the cab.

With its angled, nine-foot-tall windows, the room looked like a futuristic, octagonal playboy bachelor kitchen that should be standing on a cliff in the Hollywood Hills. Smooth black countertops ringed the room, and I could imagine George Clooney chopping broccoli while gazing out over the lights of L.A. through one of the massive, 600-lb. windows, while some car show model kicks off her heels in the living room and wonders how much money she can cadge from this guy.

But instead of cappuccino machines and Cuisinarts, the counters held only a few small display screens and some generic-looking electronic equipment. I took a closer look at the square black gizmos, and then I understood why visible security had been nonexistent. They were cardboard models.

The old tower, built in 1961, is still operational and the switchover to the new tower won’t be made until September 30. According to Henry Barsotti, Jr., the air traffic manager, they are on schedule to make the transition and they’ll flip the switch at 6:00 a.m. At this point, though, there was nothing to flip the switch to. I don’t even know if there was a switch yet.

It makes sense that you wouldn’t want to have all your technology set up for this public tour. I’d eyeballed the crowd during the speeches and saw a few familiar faces, and hundreds more folks I didn’t know: contractors and their families, pleasure pilots, airplane buffs, cake enthusiasts, a handful of Missoula County officials, and quite a few retirees with nothing better to do.

I’m sure Mr. Barsotti wouldn’t want his touch-controlled, cutting-edge technology fondled and stroked by the milling crowd in the cab, which included several kids with cake frosting on their faces and hands and no stairway etiquette whatsoever.

On my way out, I ducked through a doorway that led outside to the catwalk that rings the tower near the top. I walked around to the north side, hugging the wall so people could get past me to the stairs which led back down to more cake, and then it hit me: a lighthouse. That’s what this was reminding me of. Especially on the catwalk. But the view from here sucked. You couldn’t even see the beach.

Still, even without the pounding surf and wheeling seagulls, it’s impressive. The tower took three years to build, and it came in on time and a quarter-million dollars under budget. The FAA worked closely with the airport on the project.

It’s probably a good thing the Feds weren’t in charge of construction, or I’d probably be writing this story six years from now, about an already-obsolete tower that runs all its electronics with Windows Vista and is built entirely of discarded CD-ROM cake boxes and extra phone cords by construction crews from Arkansas and Mississippi.

In reality, the 30,000 man hours it took to build this tower were put in by 85% local contractors and construction companies.

And this thing is built like a brick airship house. A friend who works with TetraTech told me the foundation, sunk sixty feet deep, consists of 25 three-foot-diameter columns of steel-reinforced concrete. To anyone who has tried to dig a two-foot posthole in their yard through the maddening river rocks riddling the Missoula soil, this is impressive.

More concrete was poured onto the roof to help stabilize the tower. I talked with workers who’d been up here during high winds, and it doesn’t sway an inch.

There is an elevator, which goes up to the fifth floor, where the break room is. With its single overstuffed recliner, postage stamp table and compact kitchen amenities, it is the opposite of the airy, expansive cab. This is Steven Seagal’s cramped efficiency apartment at street level in downtown L.A., with a partial view of an all-night parking lot on East Sixth, where he cooks ramen noodles on a hot plate and hatches his plan to kill Matt Damon.

All around, the new tower is very impressive, an imposing and thoroughly modern addition to Montana’s third-busiest airport. At 101 feet, it’s the tallest in the state, and one of the most advanced air traffic control facilities in the nation. Once the wildfire smoke finally clears, views and visibility will be supreme.

The controllers and systems coordinators are excited to make the move from the old tower. I did overhear a comment from a guy involved with running the cab, concerning one disadvantage to working in the new tower, which is situated on an isolated pad more than half a mile southeast of the main terminal.

“No Starbucks,” he said.

 

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   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Bob Wire is medicated and ready to rock.

Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.