Jim Wecht spent 24 years as an air traffic controller at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, the last few in a dingy, leaking, 1960s-era control tower.
On Dec. 31, his last day at work before retirement and thanks to the post-Christmas blizzard, Wecht got his wish -- to direct aircraft from the airport's new, $20-million control tower.
"It was a gift from God, an act of God . . . I was able to work my last day in that tower. The last plane I talked to was from the new tower," Wecht, 62, of Blue Point, said of the 159-foot-tall facility that Federal Aviation Administration officials will formally commission Friday.
The new tower, which replaces a rusting shorter structure commissioned in 1963, gives controllers better visibility of runways and taxiways, FAA officials and air traffic controllers said in interviews this week. Operations in the facility began Jan. 22.
The new tower was ready to go on line just in time. During the Dec. 26-27 storm, winds compromised the seals in an old tower window and snow blew in as controllers were directing airplanes.
The controllers switched to a backup venue -- the adjacent fire-rescue building, at ground level. But a power failure sent them scrambling again, this time to the new tower's unfinished cab, which had power and a 360-degree view but no functioning radio equipment. From the new tower, they used hand-held radios and personal cellphones to direct MacArthur's air traffic.
"We made it safe," said Wecht, adding that he'll never forget his last day at work.
MacArthur averages 76 takeoffs and landings of general aviation and commercial aircraft a day, said Wayne Johnson, an FAA manager at the airport.
Cliff Peschansky, a 24-year controller veteran working in the new tower, said he doesn't miss the old work space at all.
"We've had leaky roofs. We've had snow blowing in the tower. That had become a distraction, and any distraction is a problem," he said.
For passengers, the new tower means increased safety. In addition to 360-degree views of the airport, the structure's added height -- the tower cab is more than 50 feet higher than the old tower's cab -- makes it easier to spot planes on the horizon as they prepare to land. Inside the tower cab, there is room for FAA supervisors to do administrative work.
"There used to be areas that we couldn't see," Peschansky said.There were other hangars blocking taxiways and parts of runways . . .