May 26, 2018
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Preflight check

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 the military is wise to take more time to better explain why a new training territory is needed and to more fully assess 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 Guard had scheduled public hearings on the proposal for this week, but canceled them after Gov. John Baldacci said several important questions remained unanswered.

The state’s major concerns include the impact on noise levels, civilian plane traffic and wildlife habitat in the area. Specific concerns were raised about the impact such low level flights would have on an area of the state that has been identified as a special asset for tourism and economic develop-ment because of the scenic surroundings. 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.

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