[Editor's Note: This is the third of a multi-part series of articles on the Grant County Commission special meeting addressing the proposal to expand training airspace over the county. This portion will address what the County commissioners asked and the replies from the Lead Airspace Analyst for Headquarters Air Force Alan Shafer.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
Commissioner Harry Browne asked the first of many questions from the Grant County commissioners at the special meeting held on Nov. 14, 2017 to hear from Lead Airspace Analyst for Headquarters Air Force Alan Shafer.
"I hope you get out in the country we're so passionate about," Browne said to Shafer. "We appreciate your apology about leaving us out in the scoping. Can you explain how we got left out?"
"Our Alternative 1 was looking at the Talon Military Operations Area (MOA) near Carlsbad," Shafer said. "Because we fly near Truth or Consequences, that was our second location. For the Lobos MOA in this area, we went for a population area, which was Las Cruces. Three meetings are standard for this size of airspace. We sent a letter to the county administration and to state senators."
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten said he did not recall receiving such a letter.
Shafer said the Air Force is seriously considering adding locations to the draft EIS review in Silver City and Reserve.
Commissioner Billy Billings said he would like to express an interest in having more meetings in remote places. "I have heard from reliable sources that a recent fire in Buckhorn was caused by dropped flares."
Shafer said the dropping of chaff and flares is usual. The minimum altitude to AGL (at ground level) is 2,000 feet. The flares, he said, are designed to burn out before they fall far enough to hit the ground. "We drop chaff and flares over the Lincoln National Forest. We had only one fire from a flare and that was because the pilot did something stupid and was soon out of the Air Force."
He said a similar operation in Oregon, with flights over a national forest, has recently gone through the EIS process. "Holloman will not drop during a drought. We will have mitigation that can be put forward and we will put any operations to analysis."
Billings said four eyewitnesses to the fire saw a flyover. "What are the large sheets of 30 to 50 feet of plastic like Saran Wrap?"
Shafer said he didn't know and was interested in getting such reports.
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos said the most important thing is the safety of residents. "How many flights do you have over the Gila?"
Shafer said at present the Air Force is not flying over the Gila National Forest. "It could be used by other organizations."
He said visual low-level flights at 100-500 feet might occur, but they would not drop flares or chaff from that altitude.
"How many times will you fly over?" Ramos asked.
Shafer said up to 10,000 sorties a year, using a mathematical formula. "The maximum number of flights would be 20,000, but 50 percent will be over the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). Not all sorties are at low or high altitude. The numbers will be refined."
Browne said he didn't think Holloman uses airspace over the Gila at present. "But on the map, it appears to cover the Gila. Both areas see flights from Arizona at medium altitude and above."
Commissioner Alicia Edwards said: "We could infer from the three meetings and the places they were in that people who use our airspace are from Arizona."
Shafer said in the 1980s, the Arizona Air force scheduled long hauls. "Airplanes at high altitude use less fuel, so they can go a little father. With low AGL, 90 miles from base is about maximum."
"You said you have been underneath an F-16. Would you like to describe being underneath an F-16 flying at 500 AGL?" Edwards asked.
"Noise will be analyzed," Shafer said. "I spent a lot of my career under 500 foot flights. I'm used to the noise. We'll analyze the different AGLs."
Kasten asked if the planes could go supersonic at 500 feet or at all.
"When we do the analysis, we think planes will be up to 10 percent supersonic, up to 30,000-foot altitude," Shafer replied. "Supersonic flying in the F-16 is a special event for the student pilot. But it burns a lot of gas and will take 15 minutes off a sortie. If you lose 15 minutes of a mission, there are decisions the pilot will need to do in the airplane."
Browne said he appreciated Shafer emailing the documents to the county manager, "but we don't understand our unawareness of these meetings. I'm skeptical about your opening scoping again putting it back one year."
Shafer said the scoping would have to go into the Federal Register, which can take more than two months, and then in a month after that, go into the scoping meetings. "It took us from May to August to get the first scoping into the Federal Register."
Browne said he assumed the Air Force has done this process many times. "What are your processes for effects on wildlife?"
Shafer said that is included in environmental justice, as is child safety and biological resources. He encouraged Browne to look at the Oregon air space study. Shafer said what was used in the 1950s and 1970s would be in the document. "It's completely different now."
Billings asked if the Air Force from Holloman is currently flying over this air space. Shafer said Holloman is not flying over the proposed Lobos MOA. The number of flights over Morenci and Reserve MOAs will be in the EIS. He also noted that C-130 flights come out of Kirtland and Cannon bases in New Mexico and out of Davis-Monthan in Tucson. "Most F-16s are flying at 400-500 knots. C-130s don't get up to 250 knots."
Edwards asked if she were correct in assuming the Oregon air space optimization study would have analyzed fire. "How similar is it to us?"
"It's high desert," Shafer said. "The people there had a lot of concern about fire, so there was a lot of analysis. It was for F-15s. We will look at the risks in the Gila. We point you to the Oregon study to see the level of thought and analyses we do. Different airplanes use different platforms."
Edwards asked Shafer how many times he had gone through the EIS process and at the end made a decision. Shafer said he has participated in five EISs. "This is the fifth. Cannon was low altitude training. It was withdrawn, because we came up with new airplanes. We will readdress the regional air space optimization project. A lot of the air space we don't use and we want to return it to the public. Our goal is to optimize our use of air space."
He said the size of the Cannon low altitude training area (LATA) was based on the size of an operation with C-130s out of Florida that went as far as Knoxville, Tennessee. "The larger the area, the fewer the times the planes fly over a specific area. We as the Air Force did a bad job of explaining that. Going from the EIS to a Record of Decision (ROD) brought a lot of mitigation before we came to a decision."
Browne said the proposal calls for 10 percent of the flights being night flights. "Will those night flights have release of flares? I hope the analysis will take into account that we have one of the darkest night skies in the country. Astronomers come to our dark sky park near Glenwood to study the stars."
"I can't imagine being a cow, a horse, a deer or elk and have a flare in the sky," Edwards said. "I hope you analyze that."
"I have experienced seeing flares at night when I've been backpacking," Browne said. "It's very startling."
Edwards said he was thinking more along the lines of migration and how wildlife would react.
Browne asked if there had been any crashes in MOAs.
"We fly airplanes," Shafer said. "There are crashes, but the safety record in the Air Force has improved greatly. Safety will be analyzed. There's always a chance of an airplane accident, but it is pretty remote. A Class A crash is one that causes at least $2 million in damage, with no loss of life. Class B happens on the base with more than $100,000 damage."
Browne said a crash could cause a fire.
"If you punch off the tanks, it might," Shafer said. "It would be an extremely rare emergency. We cannot put schools, homes around those zones where something might happen."
"I'm glad to hear it's rare," Edwards said, "but a Class A accident over a national forest will likely start a fire. Who will pay to fight the fire?"
Shafer said it would be part of the EIS and ROD. An accident over ranches, with the loss of a B-1 over the Powder River Training site had the Air Force paying claims.
"I'm curious about enforcement," Browne said. "There are limits to low and high altitudes, speed limits and sonic booms. What is the enforcement in the Air Force when a pilot doesn't follow the rules?"
"We will have an instructor pilot on the airplane or following in a second plane," Shafer said. "The instructor will enforce. The unit usually takes care of that pilot. We have flight data recorders that are used in the debrief. If there is a noise complaint or question about flares, we can go back through records. The FAA keeps its records a long time. One time in 11 years, I was investigating an incident."
He said the Air Force is different from 10-20 years ago. "We have learned from experience. In 1991, we were starting to stress discipline. A smaller Air Force makes sure every pilot will do what is expected. It's written in our core values."
Browne asked about the intention of giving back the air space that is not used. "The Valentine MOA near the Mexican border in Texas was returned. It was hard to use. It had a lack of proximity to bases."
Browned noted the MOAs are discontiguous from White Sands Missile Range. "How is that space used? Don't you have to fly over it to get here?"
"We don't like to use jet routes," Shafer said. "We don't want to get in the way of north-south routes, civilian and commercial. Or between Tucson and Holloman. A standardized route would take us over WSMR. We still have to get to MOAs for training, but we could use it only when we had access over White Sands Missile Range."
He also said the flights would not drops chaff or flares during extreme fire danger.
Browne asked if Shafer were aware of how many times in a year the fire danger is extreme. Shafer said it would be part of the analysis.
Browne asked how many bases are training pilots. Shafer said F-15s are only using Klamath in Oregon. The F-15E flies out of Seymour-Johnson in North Carolina. The majority of F-16s use Holloman, some out of Tucson, and others out of Kelly Air Force Base at Lackland in San Antonio, Texas. F-35s are out of Luke AFB in Phoenix and F-22s fly out of Tindall AFB in Panama City, Florida.
Someone mentioned helicopters and Shafer said the final training for helicopter pilots is run by the Army in Alabama.
Browne said helicopters fly out of Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Andrew Gomolak of Holloman AFB said Fort Bliss has its own flying rules and they do not fly this far west.
Edwards asked how many pilots short is the Air Force.
Shafer said within the next two years, the service will be at a maximum shortage of about 1,000 pilots.
Edwards asked how much more air space Holloman needs to train pilots.
"We need two areas," Shafer replied. "The optimization plan is to optimize for all F-16s. After we make the decision we will then determine how many planes we need and how many pilots we can train, as well as how many to train at WSMR or over Talon or Lobos. WSMR is important for practice bombs, as is Centennial, part of Fort Bliss. Actual munitions drops have to be in those two areas."
To a question about how many MOAs are being looked at, Shafer said one in Maine for the Maine National Guard is under consideration. "A lot are being gone through, but I can't speak to them unless I want to stand before the Secretary of the Air Force, in which case, I might be retired to Silver City earlier than I expect."
He also explained that in the EIS cumulative effects from Fort Bliss and from Arizona would be taken into account.
Kasten asked when the best guess for public hearings would be. Shafer said he would like it within six months, but it might be as long as 12 months. "We've already been delayed a year-and-a-half. As soon as this is done, I will retire. We will make a more concerted effort to ensure everyone is notified."
Kasten asked that a public hearing be held in Silver City, Grant County. "These people deserve it," he said to applause.
Browne noted that Alternative 2 has vague, imprecise lines. Shafer said it would be defined in the draft EIS. "It would be inappropriate without taking it to the public first. Talon did not fit our needs. You see the yellow dotted lines on the map. The FAA has asked that airspace to be returned to the public. It's an oval purposefully. We just have general information to meet the Air Force's and the public's needs."
"We went through the scoping period, to learn what we didn't know about," Browne said.
The first scoping was on the east side of WSMR on an existing piece of airspace. Shafer said: "We don't know what the solution is yet."
Browne tried to envision the area, which leaves Reserve and Morenci, which are too far away for Holloman. "It leaves an area closer to Silver City or somehow expands a narrow sliver around the FAA dotted lines."
"The Victor Route is commercial," Shafer said. "If we decide to impinge on it, we will have to have mitigation." He again invited people to go to the website and make comments, as well as to sign up for the draft EIS. "We don't know what we don't know. We want to be open and transparent. It is important to get the right message out."
Billings said the scoping is over, "but you will still receive comments. I presume the sooner the better."
Shafer said they would like them within the next two weeks. "As we develop the EIS, we can pick other alternatives. We will choose our preferred option. We have right now, two broad-brush options. In the notice of intent, the Secretary of the Air Force may choose one or the other or a hybrid."
Billings said he was still concerned about the fire that might have been caused by flares. Shafer asked that the time and date be relayed to him. "It may not be the Air Force. If you see something being done by an Air Force airplane, call us at 575-572-7756."
Ramos said the bottom line is that "we all have family in the Air Force and we want the best training possible, but we want to make sure studies are done correctly, before you run jets over our forest. Do as much as possible to keep training where it has been."
"My favorite uncle came from Silver City," Shafer said. "It is on my short list of places to retire. We and the Air Force want to minimize what the impacts might be."
Kasten said he was sitting in a restaurant the other day. "I don't know if it's human nature or what. One person behind me was telling another person that the Air Force was going to start bombing in the Gila Wilderness. I thought about getting up and saying something, but I didn't. Could you lay to rest that you will not be bombing the Gila Wilderness?"
"Absolutely we won't," Shafer said. "We had a question yesterday from federal agencies about how we would impact hunters and fishermen. We have restricted areas like White Sands Missile Range. We have areas that are off limits to people because of bombing. We will not stop people from going into the Gila National Forest. No bombing.
"I've wanted to come to Silver City and it won't be my last trip here unless we choose not to use Alternative 2," Shafer said.
Kasten invited Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez to speak. "I want to thank the commissioners and the gentlemen who came. I saw a number of concerned individuals outside. We recognize that our pristine forest is one of the oldest wilderness areas. It's a concern of people in the region. Tourism is a huge industry here and we need to identify the issue. We need to protect the forest and be ensured that there will be no environmental harm. It's very important for us that we make sure our forest and environment are protected for our children and grandchildren."
The next article will address the public comments, which took up almost half the session.