2009-01-14 / Front Page

Low flying military jet proposal to get added study

By David Hart Irregular Staff

WESTERN MOUNTAINS - - The plan for low level military flight interceptor training over three counties that make up a large portion of the Western Mountains has had its itinerary changed. A large portion of Franklin, Somerset and Oxford counties is being subjected to a proposed change in its restrictions on airspace travel for military fighter jets. However, according to Governor John E. Baldacci, officials of the Air National Guard have said they're going to back off on their desire to send an Environmental Assessment to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval.

Military officials now say that, that they'll conduct a full Environmental Impact Study before publically submitting a proposal. Speculation suggests the change may be based on FAA recommendations and/or strong local and state-wide opposition to the proposal as submitted. An EIS is a study that is far more in-depth, costing potentially hundreds of thousands to even millions more to conduct and potentially takes years to conduct.

Over the last two years, the 104th fighter wing out of what was Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod and now Barns AFB in western Massachusetts has proposed to lower its approved flight restrictions. Over the past 20 years, fighter pilots could train in the area at elevations of 7,000 feet above mean sea level. Most recently the Guard has proposed to lower that restriction to just 500 feet above the ground in a Military Operations Area known as CONDOR 1 and 2.

The area did have a limited window for low flight training, but too narrow for what the military desires. The training would consist of sorties over challenging mountainous terrain with a low flying aircraft of some sort acting as an enemy threat. Two or more F-15 / F-16 style fighter jets would dive from 7,000 feet or higher to intercept the low flying aircraft before soaring back up to high elevations. The training is designed to improve U.S. pilots in boarder patrol issues and terrorist attacks such as the one experienced in the Sept. 11 disaster.

Last week the Governor received verbal communication that the ANG will now conduct a full EIS before proposing to alter the plan in this area's airspace. Later that week the Governor received written confirmation that the ANG was conducting a more thorough review.

Baldacci had concerns about the way the proposal was moving forward under the EA and urged congressional delegates as well as some of his state agencies to take action. He strongly requested that a full EIS was needed. The ANG representatives in public meetings has said that local and state government has little say over how airspace is regulated and that the decision lies with the FAA. However, military officials additionally said that they would include state agencies in the process and met with the Governor and representatives of the Maine Department of Transportation several times.

"I am pleased that the National Guard Bureau has agreed to conduct an Environmental Impact Study before moving forward with this proposal," Baldacci said in a news release.

"I have serious concerns about the contents of an earlier Environmental Assessment Supplement regarding this proposal, and I hope that a full EIS will help to ensure that any decisions made regarding CONDOR are in the best interests of everyone involved."

In a letter written to Harry Knudsen of the ANG Readiness Center, Baldacci requested written confirmation that an EIS be conducted.

"We understand the unique needs of the military to train, and support the vital mission the National Guard performs, it is imperative that a full analysis be conducted to understand the impacts, mitigate public concerns, and determine if the area proposed is appropriate and if it is the only space such training can be done," Baldacci wrote.

The Governor said his administration stand ready to assist the ANG in collecting necessary data and information for the EIS.

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