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Civilian Pilots Say Air Force Plans To Expand Cannon Fighter Training Space Could Put Planes at Risk

By Miguel Navrot
Journal Staff Writer
    High above rolling De Baca County, the 27th Fighter Wing readies for battle.
    The wing flies F-16 Falcon fighter jets from nearby Cannon Air Force Base. When they aren't dispatched overseas, Cannon's pilots practice combat maneuvers and bomb drops over sparsely populated eastern New Mexico.
    To the south and west, in the sky over Lincoln County, civilian aircraft— commercial, charter and private planes— buzz between Albuquerque and Roswell.
    The civilian aircraft could soon find those skies less welcoming.
    During prespecified times, the Air Force wants to close some air space above Lincoln County for large-scale combat maneuvers. It also is seeking to expand military air space over Chaves, De Baca, Guadalupe and Roosevelt counties. As many as 40 commercial flights a day flying just north of Fort Sumner would be rerouted.
    Air Force pilots say the current air space is not sufficient to train them for today's missions.
    At Cannon's present training ranges, pilots aren't always able to practice employing weapons while under enemy fire, according to Col. Tip Wight, Operations Group commander for the 27th Fighter Wing.
    "We want to train" the way we fight, he said at a January public hearing in Santa Rosa.
    The Air Force's increasingly sophisticated combat aircraft have longer ranges than ever before, officials said, allowing its pilots to hit targets from farther distances than previously possible.
    The expansion proposal also has the support of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who say it could substantially increase Cannon's value to the military.
    This May, a panel will announce which military bases should be closed or shrunk to save money.
    But the pending decision frightens some civilian pilots.
    "They've grabbed up so much airspace, it's going to be dangerous for small, civilian aircraft," said U.S. Pilots Association President Steve Uslan, fearing mid-air collisions.
   
Plan to expand
    More than a year ago, Cannon unveiled the New Mexico Training Range Initiative, a multipart plan to expand military airspace and conduct supersonic flights at lower elevations.
    The proposal, which has found backing among local civic and elected leaders, calls for supersonic flights as low as 5,000 feet above the ground. That is roughly the rise of Sandia Peak's summit over Albuquerque.
    Supersonic speeds in the area now are allowed only above 25,000 feet.
    Also in the plan, the Air Force would expand its training space over De Baca, Lincoln, Chaves, Guadalupe and Roosevelt counties. The area is known as the Pecos Military Operations Area.
    Cannon wants a bridge over Lincoln County linking the Pecos airspace to another patch of military air space to the southeast, known as the Beak Military Operations Area. Nearby Holloman Air Force Base uses the Beak airspace.
    The bridge linking the two military spaces, dubbed the Capitan Military Operations Area, is what concerns Uslan and other civilian pilots.
    "No one in their right mind would go in there," Uslan said of the connecting bridge.
    The Capitan bridge, if approved, would be closed to civilian pilots for a few hours twice a month, according to the plan. Military aircraft would fly no lower than 12,500 feet above sea level, or roughly 7,500 feet over the ground.
    Civilian aircraft could fly under this area.
   
Collision fears
    The F-16s would be allowed to fly as low as 500 feet off the ground in military areas outside the Capitan bridge.
    Uslan said he believes the Air Force would violate the 12,500-foot deck during its combat maneuvers. He worries that fighter pilots nearly breaking the sound barrier pose hazards to civilian aircraft.
    A fighter pilot involved in a high-speed training mission, Uslan said, will be focused on the jet's instrument panel. "He's not going to be looking out his window for civilian aircraft," Uslan said.
    Uslan points to two collisions in recent years with Air Force jets and civilian airplanes. In 2000, an F-16 from Moody Air Force Base, Fla., collided with a single-engine Cessna 172 Skyhawk, injuring the airman and killing the civilian pilot.
    And on Jan. 18, over south-central Oklahoma, a T-37 Tweet training jet from Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, collided with an Air Tractor crop duster. The Air Force instructor and student parachuted to safety, but the civilian pilot died.
    Carter DuBois, head of the New Mexico Pilots Association, said he fears the Air Force could close the Capitan bridge without giving enough notice to civilian pilots.
    "We can't fly in the area when they are hot," said DuBois, who is a pilot for Angel Flight, a charity that flies critically ill patients for medical treatment. "It takes away our ability to fly around the state."
   
Pilot's experience
    Cannon officials say the proposal is safe, and dispute claims that the Capitan bridge could be activated with little notice.
    The Federal Aviation Administration would be notified ahead of time, Col. Wight said. Civilian pilots would have at least 24 hours notice.
    Under normal circumstance for its large-scale exercises, Wight said notice would be given "at least a week or more in advance."
    To help make their case in several meetings in January, Cannon officials introduced Capt. Mark "Magic" Johnson, a 27-year-old F-16 pilot with the 524th Fighter Squadron at the base. Johnson, based in 2003 in the Middle East, found himself on a mission while under enemy fire.
    It was a situation Johnson hadn't practiced for, he said. A month after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, he was flying low and exposed to surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery fire.
    Johnson returned unscathed, but base officials said they want him and other pilots better prepared for those missions. The expanded air space would enable pilots to go through better training.
   
Political support
    Another issue is the proposed increase of sonic booms. The number of supersonic flights in the range would increase from the current 168 a month to 467.
    Brenda Cook, an environmental officer at Langley Air Force Base, Va., said more echoing booms from the flights could be a nuisance to residents but would pose no hazards.
    "They are no more dangerous than a clap of thunder," Cook said during a recent hearing.
    Another advantage for Cannon to expand the range deals with location. Sitting less than 50 miles west of the base, the Pecos military area means quick and, given increasing fuel costs, relatively inexpensive transit time to and from the range.
    Wight noted that other supersonic military jets could also benefit from use of the expanded space. The opportunity is appealing to the New Mexico Air National Guard's F-16s based in Albuquerque.
    It also has state and congressional lawmakers intrigued. Sen. Domenici, an aggressive backer of the range proposal, has suggested the Air Force consider Cannon for future fighter jets, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
    Denish said Friday the plan is a "unique opportunity" to give the Air Force and the New Mexico Air National Guard "the best training possible for combat missions."
    The proposal, Denish added, "does what we've been focused on all along, which is to prove the military value that New Mexico provides. ...It's not the value of the base to us, it's the value of us to the military."
    "It would give our pilots better training in a more realistic environment," Domenici said. "... An excellent byproduct of expanding the training would be a substantial increase in Cannon's military value."
    Uslan remains skeptical of Cannon's proposal.
    "The problem I have is they're going to kill somebody to protect the fragile economy in New Mexico," Uslan said.
    A final decision about the expanded air space will come from the Federal Aviation Administration in October. Air Force environmental managers will decide whether the plan would pose any danger to humans or animals.