By Laura J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
March 22, 2013

Most days, about two dozen student pilots circle over downtown Riverside, taking cues on takeoffs, landings and the position of other planes from the air traffic controllers at the city airport.

“They’re an extra set of eyes on the runway,” flight instructor Jose Gonzalez said. “When you’re new, that’s pretty important.”

But the guiding voices from the airport tower could go silent within weeks. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to decide Friday whether to shut down as many as 238 air traffic control towers across the country, including 23 in California, as part of a plan to trim $600 million under the federal government’s forced spending cuts, known as sequestration. The towers would close April 7.

Southern California could lose 14 towers at airports in Palmdale, Pacoima, Victorville, Oxnard, Fullerton, Lancaster and elsewhere that handle civil, commercial and military flights. Also on the list is Santa Monica Airport, which will be considered in a later round of cuts.

Hundreds of airports across the nation have long operated without control towers, depending instead on communication between pilots over short-wave radios. But losing so many control towers in an airspace like Southern California’s, which sees tens of millions of flights a year, increases the risk of collision in the air and on the ground, experts say.

“The work of air traffic controllers is a very necessary layer of safety.” said Bob Spencer, a spokesman for the L.A. County Department of Public Works, which operates six of the region’s airports. “This is a densely populated area with heavily trafficked skies.”

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