Air Force: Effects of expansion minimal

CNJ staff and wire reports

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — An environmental report on the effects of a proposed military airspace expansion estimates increased noise that could be intrusive but would cause no damage to animals or humans.

The 421-page environmental impact statement said the expansion would mean “some airspace and noise consequences” but would have no other noticeable effect.

The proposal, the New Mexico Training Range Initiative, would expand military airspace from the current 2,600 square miles to 3,300 square miles, moving west into Lincoln County, east toward Portales, north into Fort Sumner and south into Chaves County.

Cannon Air Force Base officials said the current airspace they use for training does not allow realistic training for a full range of F-16 jet fighter plane missions.

The plan also would let F-16 pilots fly lower and faster. Pilots would be allowed to fly as low as 500 feet above the ground and to fly at supersonic speeds at approximately 6,000 feet rather than the current 26,000 feet above ground level — resulting in a threefold increase in sonic booms.

“There is a lot of research taken before we can go forward with any type of expansion,” said 1st Lt. Jennifer Geeslin of Cannon Air Force Base’s public affairs office. “The whole reason that we do such a thorough environmental impact statement is so we can take in all the concerns of the environment and ensure if this proposal does go forward and get approved that it will have minimal effect on the environment.”

The report said the fighters now fly nearly 170 sorties that break the sound barrier each month. The number breaking the sound barrier could jump to 467 flights a month.

The number of missions would remain the same, Geeslin said, but the type of missions and the altitude at which pilots fly could be different if the expansion is approved in the fall by the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s a common misperception that (if there is increased airspace) we’re going to be flying that much more — no, our flying-hour program won’t be changing,” Geeslin said.

In the center of the airspace, about the southern edge of De Baca County, the average number of sonic booms would go from the current six a month to 20 a month, the study said.
The study said people and animals would notice the increase, “and it could be deemed intrusive.”

It also said the noise would not be strong enough to harm humans or animals or to damage structures. It could, however, shatter fragile windows and rattle objects off shelves, the study said.

Probability of flare-induced fire would be low, as flares are designed to be fully consumed before reaching the ground, the report said.

The report found that increasing military airspace would pose no increased risk of flight accidents, would not damage cultural or recreational resources and would not disproportionately affect minority or low-income communities.

Advocates of the expansion say its importance is paramount for training and the future of the Air Force in New Mexico — the airspace would be used by pilots stationed at various bases in the state. Those same advocates say this proposal is important in keeping Cannon off the upcoming base realignment and closure (BRAC) list.

Critics, some of them farmers and ranchers affected by the expansion, say the initiative is a form of encroachment.

“Yes, the Committee of 50 and Roosevelt County Chamber of Commerce are correct in saying the expansion would benefit Portales and Clovis, but they’re not flying over the cities,” said A.S. “Tex” Elliott, a rancher who owns about 28,000 acres 18 miles southwest of Fort Sumner. “The elected officials are pimping us for the benefit of the cities — to heck with the farmers and ranchers.”

While some farmers and ranchers are concerned about the effects of the expansion, many others say they support the Air Force and its mission.