Low flight plan expected in five months

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FARMINGTON – The Massachusetts Air National Guard’s formal proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration seeking approval to lower its jet training flight floor from the current elevation of 7,000 feet to 500 feet above the ground over much of western Maine is five months away, an officer said on Wednesday. 

Capt. Matthew Mutti, an executive wing staff officer with the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass., said the environmental assessment developed over the past few years to support the lower altitude training missions for its F-15 and F-16 jets in the Condor 1 and Condor 2 military operations areas over the Franklin, Oxford and Somerset counties of western Maine and a portion of southern New Hampshire, will be delayed by a few months. 

“We’re still working on finalizing the EA,” Mutti said of the draft’s delay. He added they are in negotiations with Maine Gov. John Baldacci and the FAA to complete the assessment, “but the governor wants an environmental impact study to be completed.” The FAA has the ultimate authority over U.S. airspace and would determine if the proposal should be approved or an impact study be required. The impact study Gov. Baldacci, along with Maine’s Congressional delegation, are seeking is similar to the assessment that has already been produced, but is far more in depth, expensive and time-consuming to complete. 

“We argue that we don’t need it (an impact study) because the Condor airspace has been operating there for so long,” Mutti said. “It was established 30 years ago – a long time ago – for both high and low altitude training. The (environmental) impact won’t change.”   

Currently, pilots must stay 7,000 feet above the earth throughout much of the military operations areas. The exception is the so-called “flight corridors,” which make up roughly 53 percent of the area. In these flight corridors, F-15 and F-16 jets are allowed to fly as low as 500 feet off the ground. These corridors are one way only and pilots are not allowed to conduct interception-related maneuvers within those corridors.

The Air National Guard’s proposal is to do away with the one-way flight corridor system and lower the minimum altitude requirement to 500 feet throughout Maine’s military operations area so they can perform low altitude interception training missions.

According to Massachusetts Air National Guard Gen. L. Scott Rice at the last public meeting on Dec. 2 in Farmington, “We have found out that [low-altitude interception training] has been a weakness of the U.S. military.” He went on to say that much of the existing technology and training focuses on plane-to-plane combat and not engaging low flying targets such as small, personal aircraft or cruise missiles.

 Gen. L. Scott Rice of the Massachusetts Air National Guard answers questions at the Dec. 2 public information meeting in Farmington.

The guard says that its pilots will be in low-altitude flight for 10 minutes, time enough for a pilot to see the training mission’s airborne target, fly down to a minimum of 500 feet and simulate an engagement. Rice noted that training missions at low altitudes, within the flight corridors, currently last 30 minutes.

In a letter addressed to the Federal Aviation Administration in July, Baldacci noted that his administration “serious concerns” with the plan. “As Governor of the State affected by this proposal, I request that an Environmental Impact Statement be developed,” he wrote. “I base my conclusion on the lack of adequate review of the alternatives and the significant public controversy that exists in Maine.”  

Five public information meetings in the three Maine counties affected have been held by the Air National Guard since last spring when the environmental assessment draft was completed. A meeting held on July 11 in Farmington was attended by more than 150 people, with no one speaking out in favor of the plan. Other, smaller meetings held in Moscow and Rumford were met with generally mixed views, with the majority of those attending the meeting in Rangeley backing the proposed lowered training flight missions. 

Maine’s Department of Transportation has collected 266 public comments that included concerns over alternative training sites not being explored, such as the Yankee MOA, in New Hampshire, and the Fort Drum MOA, in upstate New York. Rice responded that those two MOAs would be affected more than Condor 1 and Condor 2 would be by the changes, and that both were inferior to the Maine area due to terrain, distance and space constraints.

Jets training over Maine used to fly out of Otis Air Force Base on the Cape in Falmouth, Mass., but since the last round of military base realignments, they are stationed at Barnes Air Force Base in western Massachusetts. Opponents to the plan have said the distance is greater from Barnes AFB to Maine than other established training areas as economic reason enough to use other training areas. But Mutti disputed that by saying the distance to the training area in Maine is roughly the same from either base.

Other concerns voiced at the meetings have included the effects of sudden, loud sound bursts of the jets on the health of people and animals; the potential for mid-air collisions with recreational light aircraft; the possible fire hazard when flares or chaff are used in the training exercises; and many cite the economic impact on western Maine’s businesses that depend on quiet, peaceful settings.

The Air National Guard is operating an aircraft complaint hotline (508-968-4090) for residents who think the jets in training exercises are too low, too fast or too noisy and are setting up “bubbles” of space which their pilots won’t enter at a low altitude. “Bubbles” include certain towns, eagle nesting areas and Umbagog, a national wildlife refuge. Some have complained that the complaint hotline hasn’t worked when they called. 

This week, state Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington, and state Rep. Tom Saviello, U-Wilton,  called a public meeting at the town office to “air this whole thing out,” Gooley said. About a dozen or so residents showed up, most expressing concerns about the proposal and possible strategies to raise the public’s awareness about the issue.

Saviello backs the need for an impact study, but noted in order to trigger the more detailed study, lots of letters need to be written by the public and sent to the Air Force, FAA and Maine’s Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. He stressed the comments need to show that a significant impact and/or controversy would be generated by the lowered jet training flight proposal.

In the meantime,  Gooley and Saviello said they will draw up a legislative resolve that Gooley said he hoped will raise the issue for people across Maine. Mutti said the public has six months total, five months until the draft is submitted to the FAA for its review and another 30-day period after that, to get their comments sent.

Written public comments can be sent to:
Lt. Col. Landon Jones, NGB/A7CVN, 3500 Fetchet Ave., Andrews Air Force Base, MD  20762

Allen Lucas, Military Liaison Officer, FAA Eastern Service Area, System Support Group (AJO-2E2B9) P.O. Box 20636, Atlanta, GA 30320.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, (DC Office) 413 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (DC office) 154 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510

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