2008-12-10 / Community & Local News

Low flight proposal draws resident opposition

By David Hart Irregular Staff

FRANKLIN COUNTY - - Members of the Massachusetts Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Wing located in the Otis Air Force Base in Cape Cod, held their fifth and final public meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 2 in Farmington. These pilots have trained in this area for over 40 years using F-15 military fighter jets and have been joined by the 158th FW F-16 pilots out of Burlington, Vt.

The Guard intends to expand its low flight ceiling in which fighter pilots are trained from 2,800 feet to 500 feet above ground throughout the training space. The area known as Condor 1 and Condor 2 Military Operation Area stretches through three western mountain counties.

For years, many of the pilots have desired a new use of the space that stretches from Greenville to Bethel and west from Monson to the Canadian Border. The last significant request was back in 1990 and was defeated by local and state-wide opposition. The intent is to use the airspace to conduct low altitude awareness training, interceptor sorties and "dog-fight" type missions near tree tops and along mountain ridges.

Proponents of the proposal say these mountains better replicate combat conditions and offer better pilot training than over flat land or sea. This meeting was designed as a last measure for public input and information before the application goes before the Federal Aviation Administration for consideration and/or approval.

Brig. Gen. Leon "Catfish" Rice told about 50 to 100 residents that the military training proposal was designed to strengthen military effectiveness against terrorist attack along borders and cited the Sept. 11 attack on our county as an example.

Rice explained that each sortie would consist of two or more jets and last no more then 30 minutes for higher altitude aircraft in ranges such as 7,000 altitude. Meanwhile, a lower aircraft would fly no lower then 500 feet above the ground for not more then 10 minutes. Pilots would then simulate this low flying aircraft as a terrorist attack or cruise missile and dive down to intercept and engage the target before soaring back up to high altitudes.

Currently, the military has some airspace within the western mountains MOA to conduct such training at 500 feet for F-15s, 300 feet for F-16s; A-10s can fly as low as 100 feet. Rice explained that this existing space is too narrow for the well-needed training and currently the space allows for only one-way travel.

A resident from the crowd stood and explained that A- 10s in the past have used his skidder as a military target while working in the woods.

It was reported that F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcon fighter jet pilots would travel at speeds of approximately 400 to 450 knots and would never travel at supersonic speeds. Based on a resident's claim that pilots would or could dip lower into tree-top range, Rice explained that they would be disciplined if they went lower than 500 feet. The general stated that a hotline would be established for noise complaints to create no-fly bubbles within the three counties. He also stated that they wouldn't fly over populated areas, of over identified eagle nesting grounds and over Lake Umbagog, a national wildlife refuge.

In the Guard's last public meeting in Farmington in July of 2007, over 100 people attended and almost unanimously opposed the plan saying it will turn away ecotourism opportunities and deter from the peace and tranquil surroundings of the area. Others brought attention to the well respected Brookings Report and how it was a conflict to the well known "Quality of Place" as a global brand for Maine.

There were only a few who felt that they would welcome the sights and sounds of fighter jets and would not want to stop our forces from getting the training they need while serving our country. But others argue that there are already appropriately FAA zoned low-flight training regions in the North East for these pilots to conduct their sorties.

Governor John E. Baldacci and his Administration also demonstrated concern with this plan last year.

"I have serious concerns about the proposed change and about the process," Baldacci said in a letter to Maine's congressional delegation. The Governor went on to say he had concerns over the environmental impacts and that additional and more significant detailed studies were needed to be conducted.

Rep. Tom Saviello was there and stated that although he does not always agree with the Governor, he did strongly feel that a full Environmental Impact Study was needed.

The Governor said at the time that adequate and balanced review was not given to other locations. These include places such as Yankee MOA in New Hampshire and Fort Drum MOA in upper state New York.

One resident noted that the change in the Condor MOA was "desired" but not "needed."

Rice said that evening that after a year and a half of studies, which make up their Draft Environmental Assessment report, the final EA will be submitted to the FAA in the spring and addresses all public and state concern. Military officials went on to meet Baldacci and representatives of the Maine Department of Transportation the following day. Rice explained that approval from state officials and agencies was not needed, but the ANG included them in discussions. The FAA will have final say on what happens within the airspace over the state.

Local pilots and their associations have come out to oppose such actions. They feel that visual and instrumentation will not pick up their local flights, and as one pilot put it in past meetings, they didn't want to get hit like a bird on the windshield.

Rice said he was confident that military pilots with the onboard technology the jets have would pick up other aircraft miles before approaching.

Others note that a couple of miles may represent only seconds at 350 to 400 mph.

Spokesmen for the Air Guard say they've addressed the peoples' concerns and will do things like create nofly zones based on peoples' future concerns. They also say that training will happen most likely during winter months and should not include more then an approximate 40 to 60 hours of training a year. This may include up to two or three sorties a week.

Other residents spoke of their concern over how it would affect audio health issues, impacts to the wildlife in the area and how it could startle and potentially injure livestock. Others demonstrated their concern of the economic impact it will have on an already fragile and volatile economy.

As of press time Monday, it was unclear when the specific written and comment period would end before the ANG submits to the FAA this spring.

For more information citizens can contact Harry Knudsen of the National Guard Bureau, (301) 836-8143. Rice said he would welcome comments at his email address: Leon.rice@us.af.mill. The reported noise complaint hot line is 1-800-223-5612 ext. 6302, then press 3 for noise complaints.

When and if the FAA receives the Air Guard's proposal, meetings and hearings may occur in the area for public comment with potentially a 30-day window for written record.

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