Maine’s congressional delegation is right that more information is needed before a decision is made on expanding a military flight training area in western Maine. Holding a public hearing so federal officials can hear from Maine residents is only part of the solution, however. More important, the Massachusetts Air National Guard has yet to adequately explain why the additional training area is needed.
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 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.
Late last year, Gov. John Baldacci asked for a six- to nine-month delay in the process to address shortcomings in the Guard’s assessment of the consequences of allowing the lower level flights.
“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,” the governor wrote in a letter to Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, director of the Air National Guard.
The state’s major concerns include the impact of noise levels from civilian plane traffic on 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 development 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.
With so many unanswered questions, it makes sense for this process to slow down so that a more detailed analysis can be done.
Allowing the public to share its concerns is a help. Better would be for the Air National Guard to show that it truly considered alternatives and that the negative consequences for Maine truly are necessary for military readiness.
Until that happens, this proposal should be put on hold.