Military's fly-by-night scheme raises lots of questions

by Brooke Ann Zanetell

Imagine how it would feel: You're asleep in bed at midnight, when suddenly, the roar of a fighter plane flying just a few hundred feet above your head wakes you up with a bang.

But not to worry, the plane is one of ours. Our military's pilots simply need to practice their skill at flying 300 feet above the ground. Night-vision goggles make such daring feats possible in the dark, enabling pilots to skim over mountains and swoop in and out of canyons. Now, pilots from Cannon Air Force Base in southeastern New Mexico want to run their war games over some 60,000 square miles of Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico, flying Monday through Friday for a total of 688 flights per year.

Some residents of the far-flung area, however, say that the risks and potential impacts of these flights -- ranging from crashes, jet-fueled wildfires, triggered avalanches, air pollution and harmful effects on wildlife and cattle -- warrant more study before the military decides to give itself the go-ahead. Cannon Air Force Base proposed the night flights in the fall of 2010, and just a year later, on Sept. 7, 2011, released a cursory Environmental Assessment that concluded that the flights would have "no significant impact."

Nov. 5 is the deadline for the public to ask the military to slow down and fully examine the issue through a thorough environmental impact statement. It seems odd that Cannon Air Force Base reached a "no significant impact" decision, given that resolutions opposing the flyovers have come from towns such as La Veta, Colo., as well as from the Rio Arriba, Taos and Santa Fe county commissions in New Mexico, the city councils of Las Vegas, Angel Fire and Taos, N.M., and several volunteer fire departments from that state.

The military's environmental assessment raises questions that have never been answered. For instance, it lauds the virtues of the C-130 transport-refueling plane and the CV-22 Osprey turboprop aircraft that would be involved in the night flights, but fails to mention that the Osprey has a terrible track record for accidents -- a "fundamental susceptibility," according to one military officer -- and has been on the federal chopping block for more than a decade.  The assessment does note that if you're sleeping, you'll only be awakened once a year - twice, if you have your windows open.

At public meetings, I found it mystifying that Cannon Air Force personnel could not answer basic questions about noise levels and flight altitude over ranches and wilderness areas. A bigger question is whether this proposed training area is needed in the first place.  Cannon Air Force Base claims that pilots need mountainous terrain to prepare for the kinds and types of war that the United States engages in today.  Yet a huge portion of mountainous and challenging terrain in Colorado and New Mexico is already allotted for military training flights by six Air Force bases, our Air Force Academy, and one Air Force range. How much turf is enough when our country's goal is to withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan?

It could be that Cannon is trying to counter a 2005 Department of Defense recommendation that the base be closed. Back then, then New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall defended Cannon, noting the value of its "unrestricted air space and bombing ranges." Perhaps the night-flight training proposal is a ploy, designed to demonstrate that this Air Force base is still needed despite massive budget cuts ordered by Congress and the ongoing transition to drone warfare.

To its credit, Cannon Air Force Base officials recently concluded a second round of public meetings, though there was a major problem about the location of those meetings.  Even though southwest Colorado is a major chunk of the proposed training area, meetings were held only in three affected communities:  Durango, Montrose and Gunnison. Three other meetings were held where no flights are planned: Alamosa, plus large and military-friendly cities of Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Why is the Front Range having a say over what happens on the Western Slope?

As the comment deadline nears, most elected officials have yet to take a stand. If citizens don't ask for an environmental impact study and raise concerns, then the current finding of "no significant impact" will hold, and training flights will begin as early as 2012.

Given the taxpayer price tag of $11,000 per hour, per flight, it's not too much to ask that our politicians and military tell us exactly what we're getting for our money.

Brooke Ann Zanetell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She has a Ph.D. in natural resources and is a former diplomacy fellow with the U.S. State Department. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.

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