Low-flying training missions could be West Slope disaster

By Andrew Gulliford

I’ve hiked Tomahawk Basin in the La Platas. On the shoulders of Diorite Peak at 12,761 ft. are a few shards of twisted aluminum from a 1960’s military plane crash. Not much is left, but walking the trail, the glitter is unmistakable.

Now, the U.S. Air Force wants unlimited access to fly night and day over Colorado’s Western Slope, from the New Mexico state line north to the Colorado River, east to the Continental Divide, and west to Utah.

Air Force pilots want to fly from Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M., north to Colorado. They seek 688 missions a year to develop pilot proficiency.

They want to practice with a large, MC-130J Combat Shadow II and a CV-22 Osprey, the Special Operations Forces variant of the U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey, one of the deadliest and most expensive planes ever engineered. As taxpayers we’ve spent $22 billion on this plane that can take off and land like a helicopter.

Thirty Americans have died in Osprey crashes, with 19 deaths in Arizona alone. Experts claim that the Osprey has cost more in time, money and lives than any other military plane. It handles like a sports car and pilots love the thrill.

The Air Force wants to fly it over most of western Colorado’s mountains, canyons and river valleys, in part because our rugged terrain resembles where Americans fight these days — in the Hindu Kush and the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For the tourist industry, for hunters and fishermen, for hikers and mountain climbers, for the thousands of retirees who have moved to western Colorado for our clean air, clear nights, silence and solitude, this is an environmental disaster in the making.

The Air Force is obligated to follow the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, which Congress legislated because citizens found they could trust neither corporations nor the U.S. government. Now, all federal agencies, including the U.S. military, must abide by NEPA.

The first step is the simple low-ball, environmental assessment, or EA process, not the more time-consuming and thorough preparation of an environmental impact statement. That would analyze airspace management, noise, airspace safety, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, land use and recreation, socioeconomics and environmental justice. The Air Force would prefer an EA over an EIS.

What do you say to a Navajo herder whose pregnant flock of sheep has just been buzzed by a CV-22 Osprey flying 200 fieet to 300 feet above the ground? What are the socioeconomic impacts for our tourist-based economy? What about federally protected wilderness areas? If you’ve hiked in 15 miles, the last thing you want to hear or see is low flying aircraft.

Both The Durango Herald and the San Juan County Commissioners have urged a thorough environmental study.

Safety issues also remain. On April 9, 2010, a CV-22 Osprey crashed in Afghanistan. The executive summary of the Aircraft Accident Investigation stated, “The total loss for the MA (mishap aircraft), crew, equipment and ammunition totaled more than $87 million.” During its last seconds, the plane “developed an unanticipated rapid rate of descent and impacted the ground at 75 knots ground speed.” In other words, it dropped straight down. The planes weigh in excess of 120,000 pounds and can fly at 260 mph.

The addendum executive summary explains, “The greater weight of credible evidence supports engine power loss” as a primary reason for the crash, which is exactly the kind of failure that could cause an eco-disaster in our mountainous terrain if thousands of gallons of fuel fell into our high mountain basins and protected watersheds.

My father was a U.S. Marine Corps pilot and a major. My stepfather was a navigator and lieutenant in the 8th Air Force. At the briefing in Durango on Oct. 11, I saw competent, professional men and women in camo fatigues. I asked for the sound of the airplanes flying at 200 feet to be played in the meeting room. No recording of the decibel level was available.

Col. Larry Munz, vice-wing commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, explained that these practice sessions are not just for combat, but also for humanitarian missions such as sending relief to Haiti, assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina, and helping Japan after their horrific tsunami. But the AFSOC goal is “to train to insert, extract or re-supply Special Forces.”

I queried how long the training missions would continue. He answered, “As long as there’s an operational need for it.”  Col. Munz added, “The pilots need to become proficient in flying at low altitudes in mountainous terrain. The pre-mission training is critical. They need to figure it out.”

I hunt elk with the father of an Air Force serviceman. Beside the front door to my friend’s log house is his gun rack and above it, in a triangular oak case, is the folded flag presented to him at his son’s military funeral. The young man died in an accident in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Air Force One had just taken off with President Bill Clinton and the next plane contained the president’s limousine. Flying in and out of mountains at altitude is difficult. The second plane never cleared the Tetons.

I think of the dangers of flying low over the San Juans, the La Platas, the Elk Mountain Range and the river canyons of the Animas, the Gunnison and the Dolores. Small shiny strips of aluminum can still be found in Tomahawk Basin. At night they reflect the stars.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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