Military in a dogfight for crowded skies

  • Planes line up at Colorado Springs Airport terminal

    Mark Reis/Gazette Telegraph

After spending three years and $1.5 million on environmental studies, the Colorado Air National Guard is once again promoting its plan to increase fighter-jet training over southeastern Colorado.

Because the Guard lost some of its mock combat areas to Denver International Airport, the "weekend warriors' say they need to make up the difference over southeastern Colorado.

The proposal has always raised hackles among many ranchers, hunters, environmentalists and homeowners. They say the shriek and boom of low-flying jets spooks livestock, hurts wildlife reproduction and destroys the area's calm way of life (HCN, 3/8/93). But now the biggest obstacles before the Guard may not be irate locals or threatened wildlife, but the proliferation of commercial jet liners flocking to Colorado Springs' bustling airport.

"No one could have foreseen the phenomenal growth that has occurred at the Colorado Springs Airport," says Paul McConnellogue, military liaison for the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control Center in Longmont.

As the arbiter of the nation's skies, the FAA has final say over military airspace changes. Under its rules, military jets flying faster than 250 miles per hour at low altitude must stay inside special military training areas and military operation areas. Although the FAA is reserving judgment until environmental studies are complete, McConnellogue says his agency is concerned the Guard's proposal will conflict with future growth at Colorado Springs Airport.

The Guard lost more than 100 miles of airspace when the much-delayed Denver International Airport finally came on line in 1995. The proposed training areas, however, are just 30 miles from the Springs' runway.

"So in other words, what flies today may not fly tomorrow," McConnellogue says, noting that when the Colorado Guard originated its plan, the Springs airport was little more than a shuttle-hop for Denver.

In 1992, when the Guard was still formulating its plan, 714,325 passengers boarded planes at Colorado Springs Airport, according to business reports. By 1995, that number soared to 1.4 million. This year it will top 2 million. And the number of planes touching tarmac daily at Colorado Springs has increased from 90 in 1994 to 160. The number of air carriers stationed there has jumped from six to 11.

Now the airport is contemplating a new concourse, expanding from 15 gates to a possible 27, says airport spokesman George Dushan. As carriers consider commuter service to ski destinations, airport staff hope to make Colorado Springs an international point of entry.

"As we grow, we put more pressure on the system," says George Sparks, an air traffic manager at the FAA's Springs' tower.

Increased activity in the proposed military flight zones could mean more detours for commercial carriers, acknowledges Lt. Col. Buck Buckingham, with the Buckley Air National Guard Base in Aurora, Colo. He also concedes that the Guard had neither studied the issue nor interviewed anyone at the Springs' airport. Still, he says the effect would be minimal because military use of the airspace would take up only a few hours a day.

But even small delays, added up over time, could cost the airlines fuel, time and money, airport sources say. For the FAA, which regulates and promotes air travel, these potential losses are also a safety concern. When the military areas are "hot," planes going to and coming from the southwest will be steered through narrow corridors, says McConnellogue.

"Can it be done? Yes," he says. "Is it the most efficient, safest way to do things? We think possibly not."

The writer works out of Westcliffe, Colorado.

Note: another new article, "Silence could be shattered by military jets," appears as a sidebar to this article in the print edition.

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