Residents blast low-flight training proposal

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FARMINGTON – In the latest meeting hosted by the Air National Guard, residents generally panned a proposal to alter the way military jets trained over Franklin County.

The event, the fifth public meeting of its kind since the plan was announced, was attended by more than 50 residents and lasted a couple hours, mostly consisting of representatives of the Massachusetts Air National Guard answering questions. Several people spoke, only a couple in favor of the proposal to decrease the minimum altitude pilots must fly while training over western Maine.

The training area under consideration consists of two regions, known to the military as Condor 1 and Condor 2. Collectively, when a mission is being conducted, Condor 1 and Condor 2 make up the “Military Operations Area,” or MOA. With the closure of three New England bases, the only planes conducting training operations in the proposal are F-15 and F-16 military jets.

Currently pilots must stay 7,000 feet above the earth throughout much of the MOA. The exception to this rule are the so-called “flight corridors,” which make up roughly 53 percent of the area. In these flight corridors, F-15 and F-16 planes are allowed to fly as low as 500 feet off the ground. However, these corridors are one-way, pilots are not allowed to conduct interception-related maneuvers.

Massachusetts Air National Guard Gen. L. Scott “Catfish” Rice, at right.

According to Massachusetts Air National Guard Gen. L. Scott “Catfish” Rice, therein lies the problem with the current arrangement.

“We have found out that [low-altitude interception training] has been a weakness of the U.S. military,” he said. He went on to note that much of the existing technology and training focused on plane-to-plane combat, not engaging low flying targets such as small, personal aircraft or cruise missiles.

The Air National Guard proposal is to do away with the flight corridor system and lower the minimum altitude requirement to 500 feet throughout the county. Then, Rice said, pilots could conduct training operations aimed at more modern threats.

The Air National 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 in low-altitude, within the flight corridors, currently lasted 30 minutes.

As fail safes, the Air National Guard is operating a complaint hot line for aircraft residents think are too low, too fast or too noisy and setting up “bubbles” of space which their pilots won’t enter at a low altitude. This would include certain towns, eagle nesting areas and Lake Umbagog, a national wildlife refuge.

Rice noted that the meeting represented another step in a process which began in 2006.

“We spent the last year and a half compiling public feedback, getting feedback from the state of Maine, and combining that into our environmental assessment,” Rice said. He went on to say that the plan gets “the best use out of our airspace in Maine.”

However, most present at the meeting who spoke out remained skeptical. Several have been involved with Western Maine Matters, a group dedicated to oppose the alterations to Condor 1 and Condor 2. One such member, Emily Ecker, has been in constant contact with Rice and studied a previously submitted draft of the current environmental assessment.

“Maine possesses a globally-known brand,” she said, quoting the Brookings report’s now-famous “Quality of Place” section. “With the economy and everything so shaky right now, our tourism industry is really vulnerable right now. Your revision doesn’t address that.”

In addition to the possible economic disruption, others had questions about the plans impact on auditory health, damage to animal populations and the safety records of the Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. One resident, having recently moved from Colorado, said that he had personally seen pilots fly lower than they were supposed to.

“I’ve seen planes fly less than 300 feet off mountain ridges,” Jeremy Smith of Farmington, said. “I just don’t want to see it here.”

Rice and other Air National Guard representatives responded to these questions of pilot accountability, noting that pilots caught flying below 500 feet or faster than 400 to 450 knots would be disciplined. Otis Air Force Base itself has an unblemished safety record for the past 39 years, according to Rice. He noted that the national average was two or three accidents for every 100,000 hours of training flight.

Not everyone was against the proposal. David Ramsey, of Brownville, said that he had been fishing on a lake beneath a flight corridor during low-altitude training missions. He said that while startling, the noise was hardly debilitating.

“Yes it’s loud and shocking,” he said, “but it’s not on the same level as a thunderstorm, which we have here all the time. It’s not as disruptive as a thunderstorm.”

Tomorrow, the Air National Guard will be discussing the proposal with the Maine Department of Transportation. MDOT, and Governor John Baldacci, had previously requested that the national guard conduct an “environmental impact study.” This is similar to the assessments that have already been produced, but far more in depth, expensive and time-consuming.

In a letter addressed to the Federal Aviation Administration back 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.”

State Rep. Thomas Saviello (U – Wilton) noted that he didn’t always agree with Baldacci but said that he supported the request for a more detailed study.

“We need a full environmental impact study,” he said, “and I agree with the governor in this.”

The governor and MDOT’s biggest, stated concern is that other alternatives to Condor 1 and 2 were not given a balanced review before being declared inferior. These alternatives included the Yankee MOA, in New Hampshire, and the Fort Drum MOA, in upstate New York.

For their part, the air national guard say that the two areas 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 spacial constraints.

Rice said that the air national guard hopes to put the proposal formally in front of the FAA, which has ultimate authority over U.S. airspace sometime this spring. That process includes a 30-day period to officially enter comments in the public record and possibly more meetings.

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