DANVILLE — After weeks of debate over whether a proposed AT&T communications tower would compromise the safety of emergency helicopter flights at Provena United Samaritans Medical Center, local officials heard input directly from the pilots following a fly-in Thursday morning.
With the arm of a crane hoisted 173 feet in the air at the proposed spot of the tower, emergency helicopters with Air Life in Urbana and Stat Flight in West Lafayette, Ind., flew to Provena's heliport Thursday morning, allowing the pilots and local officials a visual representation of the tower's location and height.
In a meeting after the fly-in, Tim Buss, a pilot with Air Life, and Vince Citro, the lead pilot with Stat Flight, said their biggest concern with the tower is whether it would be lit.
Originally, AT&T was not planning to light the 199-foot tower that would be about 900 feet, or three football fields, northwest of the hospital's helipad. The Federal Aviation Administration requires lighting towers at 200 feet and higher, but AT&T has now voluntarily agreed to light the top and midpoint of the tower.
Citro said Stat Flight pilots use night vision goggles, and if the tower is lit, he'll be able to see it from 5 miles away at night. Without the light, he said, he could be right over it and not know it.
"So, that was my major concern," he said.
Buss said Air Life pilots also will be using night vision goggles in the future.
Jeff Wright, a heliport development specialist with Heliplanners, said the night vision goggles are a key part of this, because more emergency flight operations are using the technology that can really make towers stand out.
"The daytime is not an issue," said Wright, who attended Thursday's demonstration with AT&T officials.
Earlier this summer, the city's zoning board of appeals granted AT&T a variance to build a 199-foot communications tower on property it plans to lease from Aqua Illinois water company. But the city has delayed issuing AT&T a building permit while discussion of the tower has continued. The proposed site is on Aqua's water treatment plant property northwest of the hospital and the helipad that's in an employee parking lot on the north end of the Provena campus at 812 N. Logan Ave., Danville.
Hospital officials have publicly stated that they take no position for or against the proposed tower but want to ensure the safety of their patients and continued use of their helipad. The Illinois Department of Transportation determined the tower should be lit but did not compromise the helipad, and the FAA also determined the tower would not be a hazard to air navigation.
Despite those determinations, Danville Alderman Bill Black, Ward 7, and Alderman Lois Cooper, Ward 2, both wanted the issue to go back to the city's zoning board of appeals for further review.
But John Quinn, external affairs director with AT&T, asked that they postpone making that motion at a recent city council meeting until AT&T could arrange Thursday's demonstration. More than 25 people watched the fly-in, including some aldermen, city administrators, officials from the hospital, Aqua Illinois and AT&T, and members of the public.
After both helicopters landed, officials met with the pilots, so they could give their input.
Jim Leahy, a contractor with AT&T, said the wireless company has a hole in its network, and a tower at the proposed site would address that. He said the company looked at other sites, but some were too far away, or there were frequency issues. AT&T officials again confirmed that the tower would be a monopole, or single pole, design about 6 feet at the base and 24 inches at the top, and it will be lit at the top and at the midpoint, about 100 feet.
AirLife pilot Mike Daly suggested that AT&T put a strobe light on top of the tower rather than a constant light. The pilots also explained that they would never fly over the tower, they would always be choosing a flight path around it, so lighting the top and the midsection would help.