Mass. Guard still planning low-level flights over Maine

Posted Nov. 13, 2009, at 1:43 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Over the governor’s objections, the Massachusetts Air National Guard is moving forward with a proposal that would double the amount airspace in which screeching F-15 and F-16 fighter jets could conduct low-level training over western Maine.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci previously hadn’t taken a formal position, but he said Friday he opposes the military training proposal based on what he’s seen so far.

“I do not believe that serious consideration has been given to the impacts on the people of Maine nor has the appropriate level of due diligence been conducted in this process,” Baldacci wrote in a letter to Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, director of the Air National Guard.

On Saturday, residents and others with a stake in the outcome of the proposal will attend a public hearing at the University of Maine at Farmington.

The hearing originally was scheduled for September but was delayed after state officials pointed out shortcomings in a draft environmental impact study. Baldacci asked for a six- to nine-month delay in the process, but the National Guard is moving forward again.

The National Guard will collect public comments until Jan. 1, then it’ll complete a final environmental impact study and turn over its findings to the Federal Aviation Administration, which gets the final say, said Maj. Stephen Lippert, the Guard’s environmental program manager.

Under the proposal, F-15s and F-16s from National Guard units in Massachusetts and Vermont would be allowed to fly as low as 500 feet over the hills and mountains of western Maine and a sliver of northern New Hampshire.

Critics have questioned the need for the ground-hugging flights, but the Massachusetts National Guard, which filed the proposal, contends more airspace is needed for realistic training for homeland defense. Fighters from Massachusetts were first on the scene in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The National Guard contends there are no other sensible options for low-level training because it’d be too costly to send pilots elsewhere on a regular basis. Part of the training over western Maine would be zooming in low to practice identifying aircraft that have violated U.S. airspace.

“With the number of deployments and active posture of the military right now, it’s critical that we have opportunities to train, especially in the low-level venues,” Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, a spokesman for the Vermont Air National Guard, which would be an occasional user of the airspace.

As it stands, fighter pilots are allowed to drop down 500 feet in narrow corridors within the 4,000-square-mile Condor Military Operation Area in western Maine and a small area of northern New Hampshire. The proposal would lower the flight deck across the entire training area.

Opposition from residents and then-Gov. John McKernan squelched a similar National Guard proposal in 1992 to let fighters fly as low as 300 feet above the ground.

This time, the complaints are the same. Besides questioning the military necessity, critics raised questions about noise, safety and quality of life.

The draft environmental impact statement said people on the ground could be subjected, briefly, to up to 115.7 decibels of noise by F-15 jets. That’s roughly the equivalent of a chain saw, jack hammer or a rock concert, but the duration would be for only 15 or 20 seconds.

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