Environmental Impact Study released for low-flight training proposal
FARMINGTON - A public scoping hearing will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 2 at the University of Maine at Farmington, giving the public a chance to weigh in on the Air National Guard's recently-released draft version of the Environmental Impact Study.
The hearing will be an opportunity for the ANG to take comments on the study [found here], which is a more in-depth look at a proposed modification of the military operation areas (MOA) Condor 1 and Condor 2. Condor 1 &2, which consists of most of Franklin County's airspace, in addition to parts of Piscataquis, Somerset and Oxford counties as well as Coos County in eastern New Hampshire.
Currently, ANG pilots must stay 7,000 feet above the earth throughout much of Condor 1 and Condor 2. The exception to this rule are low-flight corridors, which make up roughly 53 percent of the area. In these corridors, F-15 and F-16 jets are allowed to fly as low as 500 feet off the ground.
The EIS states that the three major areas of training the ANG is interested in conducting at low altitudes in the Condor MOA is Low Altitude Awareness Training, known as LOWAT, Low Slow/Visual Identification intercept training and Slow Shadow intercept training.
LOWAT consists of air-to-air operations below 1,000 feet from the ground where the nature of the terrain, rolling hills in the case of the Condor MOA, plays a factor. Low Slow/Visual Identification intercepts and Slow Shadow intercepts consist of "identifying and engaging aerial targets at low altitude, low altitude navigation, tactical formation, and defensive maneuvering to avoid or negate threats."
ANG officials say these missions can't be conducted in the flight corridors, which are known as military training routes or MTRs. Training flight traffic in the MTRs is one-way only, with interception training requiring constant shifts in elevation and position.
However, the ANG notes, interception training is a requirement for operators of F-15 and F-16 aircraft. The proposed modification would lower the minimum altitude to 500 feet above the earth.
Many residents, however, have expressed concerns to the ANG through either 266 written comments or at the five informational meetings the guard hosted throughout Franklin County. Typically, concerns include the effects of the jets' sudden, loud sound bursts on the health of people and animals; the potential for mid-air collisions with recreational light aircraft; the possible fire hazard when flares or chaff are used in the training exercises; and many cite the economic impact on western Maine's businesses that depend on quiet, peaceful settings.
These concerns were echoed by the governor's office and Maine Department of Transportation officials, who asked the ANG to conduct an Environmental Impact Study to complement an already existing Environmental Assessment. The EIS was described at the time to be a more rigorous version of the EA, with additional research into some of the concerns of residents within the Condor MOA.
The draft version of the EIS is set in a similar format as the EA, outlining potential areas of impact from the modification. Generally, the EIS states that because training flights would fly at 500 feet throughout the entire MOA, rather than just the MTRs, the 53 percent of the Condor MOA within the corridors would see a small reduction in noise, pollution, potential safety concerns, etc. The 47 percent of the Condor MOA outside of the MTRs would see small increases.
For example, the EIS looks at potential changes in interactions between military and civilian air traffic.
"Areas outside the MTRs would experience low-level flights under the Proposed Action where none occur now," the EIS says. "As a result, low altitude interaction between military and civilian VFR traffic could occur over a wider area, but the overall likelihood of interaction between military and civilian VFR traffic would decrease because military utilization of low altitude areas as a whole (in the MOAs and MTRs combined) would decrease."
Other categories carry similar conclusions. The EIS states that airspace management, safety, noise, air quality, biological resources, land use, socioeconomic and cultural resources will receive "no significant effect" from the proposed modification. Geological resources and water resources are state to receive "no effect."
The EIS also looks at three other potential training areas, as requested by the MDOT and governor's office. These areas, the ANG says, are all in range of the 104th Fighter Wing's Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, but are unsuitable for low-flight training for different reasons.
The Adirondack Range and Airspace complex, which consists of MOAs around Fort Drum in New York, is described as being "approximately 35 to 45 [Nautical Miles] long (depending on the time of year) by 15 NM wide" and designed for "bombing range" training. The ANG says that this is too narrow to conduct interception training.
The Misty Complex and Warning Areas, which are off the coast of New York, are entirely over water. United States Air Force regulations prevent training from being conducted below 1,000 feet off the surface of water due to potential "spatial disorientation from visual illusions" which can reduce the ability of the pilot to determine his or her location.
The Yankee MOA, located in New Hampshire, already allows low-flight training at 100 feet above the earth. However that airspace is authorized for the A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as "Warthogs," which are a low-flying aircraft designed to attack targets on the ground.
Some residents who had problems with the original proposal and EA say that the EIS has not alleviated their concerns.
"I am deeply troubled by the Condor EIS because it is largely just a repeat of the old EA," Tom Mauzaka of Strong said. "This was supposed to be a thorough, objective analysis and all we got was a document written by an Air National Guard paid consultant. How is this fair?"
The draft version of the EIS will include any public comments recorded at the hearing on Sept. 2, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Lincoln Auditorium. That auditorium is located in the Roberts Learning Center on the UMF campus.