A prepared military needs places to practice its maneuvers, which are often loud and disruptive. To meet its readiness requirements, the military should find the best place to do this training with the least disruption on the ground. It is unclear that a proposal from the Massachusetts Air National Guard to do very low-altitude flights over Western Maine meets this standard. That’s why Maine is wise to ask for a more stringent review than the Guard has done so far of the consequences of allowing flights as low as 500 feet.
The 102nd Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard has proposed to allow its F-15 pilots to fly as low as 500 feet over an area in western Maine and eastern New Hampshire, now known as Condor 1 and Condor 2. The change from the current limit of 2,800 feet is needed so that F-15 and F-16 pilots can gain skills needed to identify and intercept low-flying aircraft, according to the Air National Guard. F-16s from the 158th Fighter Wing in Burlington, Vt., also would use the space, which includes Rangeley, Bethel and Farmington for training.
The Massachusetts National Guard already has done a draft environmental assessment of the proposal and found that it would have no significant adverse impacts. Gov. John Baldacci has asked that the Guard be required to do an environmental impact statement, which requires a more thorough analysis of the consequences of the proposed change.
The state’s major concerns include the impact on noise levels, seaplane traffic and bald eagle habitat in the area. A 1992 request to lower the flight ceiling in the area to 300 feet was rejected.
In its analysis, the Air Guard said it looked at the possibility of having the pilots do their low-altitude training elsewhere in the country. To send pilots away for specialized low-altitude training would cost $200,000 per deployment, according to the assessment. Six deployments would be needed yearly. It called this cost “prohibitive,” but is $1.2 million a reasonable expense when the alternative is a significant change in the character of an area where a state board recently denied a wind farm because it would degrade the view? A review of using an existing training area over New York was cursory at best.
A detailed analysis also should consider that once the area is open to low-level flights, other bases and military branches could use it, so its use could be much heavier than now proposed.
With so many unanswered questions, it makes sense for this process to slow down so that a more detailed analysis can be done.