Low-altitude flights to undergo new impact study

The U.S. Air Force has for now backed off its controversial proposal to conduct nighttime, low-altitude training missions over the deserts, mountains and towns of the Four Corners region.

Cannon Air Force Base had proposed flying sorties of the C-130J transport plane and crash-plagued Osprey, a helicopter/plane hybrid, in an expanded range that includes southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico. (Free Press Nov. 2011)

The plan called for up to three missions per night throughout the year with planes flying between 300 and 3,000 feet altitude. Training would include in-flight refueling between two aircraft, low-altitude formations, use of night goggles and simulated drops.

Cannon AFB conducted 17 public meetings on the Low Altitude Training Area proposal, with hundreds showing up to oppose the plan in Durango and a more supportive reaction in Farmington, N.M.

After conducting an environmental assessment of the plan, the Air Force initially concluded a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a regulatory hurdle it needed to proceed.

But public criticism, especially in Colorado, that the plan lacked proper environmental review, and had public-safety issues, has apparently caused the Air Force to consider a more rigorous environmental impact study on the flyovers.

“After careful evaluation it became clear that a Finding of No Significant Impact could not be reached for this EA and still accomplish all of the training critical for our special operations forces,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Kingsley, in a press release from Cannon Air Force Base, near Clovis, N.M.

The public-affairs office stated that the current EA action on the training proposal “will be terminated and the Air Force will conduct a deeper analysis on a broader scope that may lead to preparation of an EIS.”

The plan had strong opposition from elected Colorado officials, pilots, environmentalists and residents who believed the flyovers would disrupt rural life, become a hazard in aviation corridors, stress wildlife and domestic animals, and be an avalanche danger.

The plan could be revived, however, a decision Cannon AFB said will be made early next year.

“We still need to conduct flying training missions,” said Col. Buck Elton, of Cannon AFB. “We operate nine different types of aircraft, each with unique training requirements, including low altitude flying.”

The Osprey, which can alternate between a helicopter and a fixed wing airplane midair, has been plagued with malfunctions and accidents.

Since testing began in 1991 the tilt-rotor aircraft has crashed seven times with a total of 36 fatalities. It was first deployed to Iraq in 2007 after 18 years in development at a cost of $20 billion.

On June 13 this year, an Osprey CV22 crashed near a military base in Florida, injuring five crew members.

From July 2012.