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Fly Over Home

Conflict over Air Force training flights highlights New Mexico’s uncomfortable relationship with its military legacy

November 17, 2010, 1:00 am

When the Air Force transitioned Cannon to an Air Force Special Operations Command base in 2007, it inherited several military training routes designed for low-altitude flights by flyers and bombers.

Those routes currently in use are not only small and limited, but they “constrain aircrews to flying over the same route turn points every flight,” Capt. Laurence van der Oord at Cannon Air Force Base writes to SFR. Those constraints limit the pilots’ ability to train effectively, and also increase noise saturation under those established routes. 

The German Tornado, capable of Mach 2.2 flight speeds, is one of the aircraft that conduct low-altitude training flights out of New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base.

The LATN plan refers to the geographic area within which special operations forces will carry out training, and is designed, he writes, “so that aircraft wouldn’t have to continually fly over the same point over and over again.” Van der Oord adds that the new area will also allow aircrews to hone their skills by flying at night, in high-altitude mountains and in different types of weather.

Under one option, the military aircraft would cross 21 New Mexico counties—and include the cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Vegas—as well as much of Colorado from its border with New Mexico north almost to Interstate 70. Within its studies, the Air Force also includes a smaller alternative, one that is confined solely to the mountainous areas of New Mexico and Colorado (but still includes Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Vegas). 

The 27th Special Operations Wing (SOW) training would consist of approximately three training flights per day. According to the Air Force’s literature, aircraft would fly as low as 200 feet above ground level at speeds of less than 250 nautical miles per hour. Most training flights would take place after dusk and 95 percent would take place Monday through Friday, totalling approximately 690 per year. 

Van der Oord adds that the proposal is specific to the C-130 and CV-22 Osprey, and the 27th SOW would be the primary users of the LATN area. 

For its part, the Osprey is a tilt-rotor, twin-engine aircraft that hovers, takes off and lands vertically—like a helicopter—while sharing range and speed characteristics with turboprop aircraft. The Osprey is used by Special Operations forces for getting troops in and out of combat zones, as well as air refueling missions during night operations (see sidebar: The Osprey Saga). Also used for in-air refueling, the C-130 flies clandestine or low-visibility operations. 

“As Cannon AFB continues to grow, we will have three squadrons that will have low altitude, mountainous training requirements,” van der Oord says. “Other units that fly the same type of aircraft could also coordinate with the 27th SOW to use the LATN.” 

Van der Oord says the Air Force studied LATN for flight obstacles, noise-sensitive or no-fly areas, environmentally sensitive areas (such as wildlife refuges and national parks), culturally sensitive areas, and prohibited areas.
Nonetheless, concerns remain.

Response to the Air Force’s plans prompted fast opposition from local governments, including Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Taos counties, as well as the cities of Taos and Las Vegas. Private citizens also turned out at public hearings, and most of them oppose the overflights. 

This isn’t the first time New Mexicans have organized against military flights. A decade ago, residents in the north successfully fought an Air Force proposal to fly bombers over the area. But despite that victory, military flights still occur throughout the area. 

“We’re told they don’t need any special permission to fly at 500 feet and above—and we see a lot of that higher-elevation stuff,” Cliff Bain says, speaking from his home in Arroyo Hondo. Bain is a former Green Party candidate, who ran for the Public Regulation Commission a decade ago. “Many people report fighter planes that fly below 500 feet, that swoop down the valleys and give every indication they’re coming at people’s houses,” he says. 

In September, Bain and others received word of LATN. 

“This would be even more intrusive than the bomber training,” he says. “The altitude is lower, it’s different aircraft that will be slower and they’ll be in our particular area for a longer period of time.” 

Those concerns led to creation of the Peaceful Skies Coalition, a loose-knit group of hundreds of citizens (its Facebook page is currently more active than its website,

“I’m involved with many, many, many other people,” Bain, who has lived in the Taos area for more than three decades and been a community activist for most of his adult life, says. “We are going to ensure that this is studied fully, and that environmental laws are complied with before a decision is made.” 

Bain also is eager for the Air Force to disclose and quantify, as part of the LATN studies what is already occurring in New Mexico’s skies. Since the military has to study the cumulative impacts of additional flights, Bain says it must first release information about and quantify current flights.
Currently, he says, the information people have is only anecdotal. 

He adds that there are myriad reasons why the training area deserves close study and scrutiny: An aircraft crash could spark wildfires, nighttime refueling operations could cause spillage (and jet fuel could contaminate local lands and waters), and there might also be damage to historic adobe structures and dangers to wildlife. 

But most of all, he opposes LATN on moral grounds. 

“I know what the mission of the 27th Special Operations Wing is: They are nighttime operations where they go into an area to insert troops or participate in a nighttime assault,” he says, adding that the fundamental issue for him is the impact upon people living in places where operations are carried out in real life. “We know that, when these things happen, there are always women and children and noncombatants who are killed—even when that death and destruction is focused on so-called terrorists or combatants in that area.” 

Opposition of LATN isn’t an issue of NIMBY, or “Not In My Backyard.” Nor can it be framed as a matter of inconvenience, he says. Rather, New Mexicans should confront the realities of war, and face the impacts of an economy built around the military. 

“I don’t want this out of sight to American citizens,” he says. “If it’s going to happen, I want us to know it’s happening and to collectively decide that this doesn’t contribute to peace and security.” In that respect, the LATN proposal actually offers New Mexicans a unique opportunity. 

Opposition to LATN should go beyond feeling as though one’s personal tranquility has been violated. Rather, it’s a powerful reminder of how much Americans spend on the military and defense contractors, “and how Congress and our leaders are addicted to defense dollars,” Bain says. 

In New Mexico’s case, the state is certainly dependent on those dollars.

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