2009-06-24 / Front Page

Hearing set on low-altitude flights

By David Hart Irregular Staff

FRANKLIN COUNTY - - The proposal of and debate over low-altitude military flights coming to this area is again before the public here in the Western Mountains.

The Air National Guard has completed a draft Environmental Impact Study in an effort to lower the flight floor for military aircraft here in Franklin County and across Western Maine. That study was filed through the Federal Registry on June 16. A formal public hearing is now scheduled for Aug. 13 at the Lincoln Auditorium, University of Maine Farmington Campus from 6 to 10 p.m.

In earlier debates, the ANG conducted an Environmental Assessment and held several public informational meetings. An Environmental Assessment is a less detailed study than an EIS. More than 250 written responses were received based on the EA and public meetings revealed strong opposition to the plan.

Governor John E. Baldacci and the Maine Department of Transportation, as well as others, requested that the ANG conduct further study. In a letter, the Governor asked the ANG to conduct balanced review of other Military Operation Areas in the Northeast for training.

"I base my conclusion on the lack of adequate review of the alternatives and the significant public controversy that exists in Maine," Gov. Baldacci wrote.

Residents were concerned about the impact such training would have on people and wildlife with sudden noise bursts, fire hazards if the military used flares and had concerns over potential air collisions of military aircraft and civilian planes. There was also concern over the economic impacts it could have on much of the area, which promotes a peaceful and somewhat remote setting for area residents and an attraction for area guests.

Currently, the ANG has operated in the Military Operational Area known as Condor 1 and Condor 2 for 30 years at elevations over 7,000 feet in populated areas. A portion of this area does have Federal Aviation Administration approval for low-altitude flights, but military officials say that the space is too narrow and inadequate for the kinds training they need. The Guard is looking for a much larger area for random low-altitude missions. Other Northeast ANG bases have used and will continue to use this space.

Spokespersons for the 104th Fighter Wing of the ANG, located at Barnes Air Force Base in Westfield, Mass., say the study area includes portions of Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin and Oxford counties. Their objective is to improve Low Altitude Awareness Training for pilots. Officials admit they are lacking in this type of training, which is a deficiency in their current training options.

In the summary of the federal registry submission, pilots would include LOWAT which is "realistic, mission oriented air-to-air operations."

These military maneuvers include military fighter jets such as F-15 and 16s diving down from between 7,000 and 18,000 feet above mean sea level to intercept and engage in low flying aircraft which would fly as low as 500 feet above ground level.

Within the proposed LOWAT-certified, low-altitude block, the notice summary reads, Low Slow/Visual Identification intercept and Slow Shadow intercept missions will occur.

"These training missions require pilots to identify and engage aerial targets at low altitude, and perform low altitude navigation, tactical formation, and defensive maneuvering to avoid or negate threats," the summary reads.

The Guard says that the current MOA flight floor is too high to conduct such training.

"The purpose of the Proposed Action is to rectify these deficiencies and provide the 104th FW with adequate training airspace in a safe training environment to fulfill its mission."

The 104th FW proposes to combine Condor's 1 and 2 and create new airspace approved by the FAA called Condor High and a Condor Low MOA.

Further details on this newly released proposal and EIS will be available soon.

Military officials say that the upcoming hearing on Aug. 13 will be different from the scoping meeting of the past. All written and oral testimony will be recorded through a hearing judge. A final EIS might be developed by this fall and reviewed by the regulators of the FAA which has final jurisdiction over airspace. During past proceedings, the military has engaged in conversation with local and state elected officials and agencies. At the same time the ANG has said that these agencies or state officials have no jurisdiction over the proposal.

The ANG is looking for written comments or concern from affected state agencies, local officials and members of the public for the next 30 days of its publication date of the filing. It is looking to see if there are additional issues not contained within the draft EIS.

"Other alternatives to be considered include lowering the floor of Condor 1 MOA and leaving Condor 2 unchanged, completing low-altitude training in other airspace in the Northeast, deploying to conduct low-altitude training and no action," the statement reads.

For further information the summary reveals Major Stephen R. Lippert, Program Manager, 3500 Fetcher Avenue, Andrews AFB, MD 20762-5157 as a point of contact.

Lippert can be reached at 301-836-8167 or emailed at stephen.lippert@ang.af.mil.

Col. Donald L. McCormack, Director of Staff and Chief for the Maine ANG said they also reserved the Roberts Room (Room 103) a classroom next to the hearing room for the night of the hearing. This is for anyone from the public/media who wants to review charts, displays or get additional information outside of the hearing room.

The summary which identifies the Public Hearing date and comment period was distributed to this media outlet by Rep. Thomas Saviello of Wilton.

Based on the written contents of the distributed email, it appears that Saviello was instrumental in bringing the hearing to Franklin County; originally targeted for Augusta.

Public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 13 at the Lincoln Auditorium, University of Maine Farmington Campus from 6 to 10 p.m.

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