Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Control tower chief at Friedman fired

Claims ?airport politics,? lack of company support

Express Staff Writer

The chief of the Friedman Memorial Airport control tower has been terminated, the Mountain Express learned this week, although the private firm that operates the tower under contract disputes reasons given by controller Dan Gearhart for his dismissal.

Gearhart, 40, blames his Nov. 8 dismissal by Virginia-based Serco on what he terms "airport politics" and his public appeal before the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority to consider shortening tower operating hours so he could schedule more controllers during peak hours. He also suggested he might have somehow been held responsible for an April incident in which a transient Cessna 172 made an unauthorized landing at Friedman while the runway was closed for construction work, although Gearhart said he was on vacation at the time.

However, Steve Christmas, Serco vice president for aviation operations, told the Express that Gearhart's termination" had nothing to do with" incidents Gearhart cited in a letter Gearhart sent to the Sun Valley Pilots Association, whose president, Carlton Green, has been a periodic critic of Friedman management.

Christmas also said he could not discuss details.

Gearhart, meanwhile, has hired a Ketchum attorney, Cynthia Woolley, and said he was instructed to decline discussing his dismissal. Woolley did not return messages left at her office seeking comment. Gearhart declined to say how long he had been employed by Serco and other questions.

Although Gearhart declined to say what action his attorney is contemplating, Woolley has won several news-making job termination lawsuits in recent years.

The tower operator, Serco, is a large corporation that specializes in management services for industry and government in a variety of fields. Its airport control tower contracts are funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In his letter, Gearhart complained that although "I used my position as air traffic manager to try and take care of my people and report safety concerns," he was wrongfully fired. He said Serco placed him on probation after he appeared in January before the airport authority asking operating hours to be reviewed.

Gearhart also alleges "local airport management became upset because some of their privately owned primary and backup equipment was identified as unsatisfactory," adding that tower controllers "work with substandard equipment in a very complex operation." Gearhart declined to answer questions about the equipment charges.

He claimed, "I have been told by many of my FAA peers I was one of the only contract managers doing my job right."

Airport Manager Rick Baird, himself a former tower controller before joining the airport staff, said Gearhart never worked for him and had no knowledge of claims in the letter.

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