Air Force low-altitude flight drills put on hold

Proposal would have conducted regular series of combat training sorties

The U.S. Air Force has put on hold plans to fly low-altitude training missions over Southwest Colorado.

In a news release Wednesday, the Air Force said it is still assessing the best course of training based on its experience in Afghanistan and others hot spots.

It acknowledged a more thorough review may be necessary of the possible environmental impacts of the proposed training regimen in the Four Corners.

We expect to make that determination in early 2013, a statement said.

Further details were not forthcoming Wednesday. Air Force news contacts were not responding to calls for comment.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., welcomed the decision to delay action.

I want to ensure that pilots and crews receive the training they need to perform their combat missions, but this training plan needed to be better coordinated with local communities and other airspace users, Udall said in a statement.

I appreciate the Air Force decision to not move forward at this time with its Low Altitude Tactical Navigation training based on the feedback it received from communities in the Four Corners, Udall said.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., also applauded the decision.

We want to ensure our air crews have the highest quality training, but its clear that additional coordination is necessary to ensure that missions dont interfere with other military, medical or agricultural operations, Bennet said. Im glad the Air Force heard the voices of Coloradans.

The original proposal was to train crews of C-130s and CV-22 Osprey, which can take off and land like a helicopter, for operations in mountainous terrain by conducting training exercises in Southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

About 700 flights a year emanating from Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico were proposed. The planes would fly at 200 to 3,000 feet above the ground at speeds of up to 250 mph.

Air Force officials said there would be no more than three flights a day at dusk on weekdays. No given area would see more than one flight a day, there would be no landings or airdrops and population centers would be avoided.

Opposition was immediate. Noise, airspace safety and detrimental effects on property values, air quality, cultural resources and avalanche-prone areas were cited.

Environmentalists, ranchers, urbanites and politicians alike protested.

Two state legislators, Reps. Wes McKinley and Edward Vigil introduced a bill to prevent the flights over a large part of the state.

The legislation would have prohibited the government from taking property, including air space between the surface of real property and 500 feet above the surface, without notifying property owners and allowing them to be heard.

The Air Force would have to prove in court why it should be able to take property, the legislation said.

An environmental assessment commissioned by the Air Force found last September that there would be no detrimental effects.

The Air Force said it received comments from 1,600 sources, including individuals, agencies, organizations and Native American tribes in response to the environmental assessment.

In its news release Wednesday, the Air Force said an environmental impact statement, a more detailed analysis than an environmental assessment, could be needed for studying the effects of all training needs.

daler@durangoherald.com

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