Hearing rescheduled for low-flight training proposal
FARMINGTON - The Air National Guard has announced that it will hold a public hearing to review its draft version of the Environmental Impact Study on Nov. 14, 2009. The hearing will give people a chance to weigh in on the study, which was released in late August after a request by the governor's office.
The ANG also announced that the public comment period will be extended until the end of the year, with written comments about the proposal and draft EIS being accepted until Jan. 1, 2010.
Currently, ANG pilots must stay 7,000 feet above sea level throughout much of Condor 1 and Condor 2, military operation areas that encompass most of Franklin County. The exception to this rule are military training routes, or "MTRs" which make up roughly 53 percent of the area. In the MTRs, F-15 and F-16 jets are allowed to fly as low as 500 feet off the ground. These MTRs are not directly connected with the Condor MOAs; a pilot cannot move freely from low-altitude flight in a MTR to the high-altitude Condor MOA without receiving clearance from Boston Central International Airport.
This system has been in place for roughly 30 years.
The ANG has consistently argued that the MTRs do not allow for the maneuvering necessary for some training, namely Low Altitude Awareness Training, Low Slow/Visual Identification training and Slow Shadow intercept training. The modification, the EIS says, would allow the ANG to meet its training requirements as well as spread training activity over a wider area.
Some residents, however, have expressed concerns about 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; and potential economic impacts on western Maine businesses that depend on quiet, peaceful settings to function.
Governor John Baldacci prompted the ANG to conduct the EIS after the Maine Department of Transportation and other agencies expressed concerns with the less-intensive Environmental Assessment, back in 2008. Then, in late August of this year, he asked the ANG to delay a public hearing on the draft EIS, scheduled for early September, after MDOT, the Attorney General's Office and residents came forward with concerns about the EIS.
“…These assessments strongly suggest that more work needs to be done to assure me and the people of the Western Maine that no significant impacts will result from the proposed changes to the Condor MOA,”
Baldacci concluded in a letter addressed to ANG Col. William Albro at the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Although agreeing to delay the hearing by two and a half months, the ANG has said that the governor's concerns have been addressed in the EIS, in a letter addressed to Baldacci on Sept. 10.
"The National Guard Bureau," ANG Director Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt wrote, "in conjunction with Major General Libby's office, has ensured all of your summary points are addressed in the current draft EIS for the modification of the Condor MOA, according to the guidance and laws of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970."
The letter went on to stress that the modification would reduce the time pilots spend below 1,000 feet, as they would not be required to stay in the low-altitude MTRs for their entire training operation.
"Instead of flying for 30 minutes continuously below 1,000 feet on low level routes under the Condor MOAs," the letter reads, "fighter aircraft would only have to fly below 1000 feet for about 10 minutes on a high-low-high intercept."
Less time at a low altitude would reduce the chance of potential conflicts with civilian aircraft, Wyatt went on to say, as well as allowing pilots to better their use radar at high altitudes prior to dropping to a lower one.
"Bottom line: Condor Airspace Modification means better training, greater safety and less impact to the environment," the letter concluded, adding that the hearing had been postponed to "provide interested parties the opportunity to more carefully examine the draft EIS."
The hearing would be at University of Maine at Farmington's Lincoln Auditorium on Nov. 14, a Saturday, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The draft EIS can be viewed here.