Fly Over Home

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

Tornados rise from the Tularosa Basin, charging above the Chihuahuan Desert. Based at Holloman Air Force Base, the German air force has for decades trained pilots in New Mexico's desert. And the force of a Tornado is something to behold: The fighter planes can travel at Mach 2.2 speed and climb to 30,000 feet in less than two minutes.

In northern New Mexico, military aircraft flying 500 feet above the ground scatter livestock; people are startled by B-1 bombers refueling at higher altitudes. Many also see C-130s practicing approach and departure maneuvers from the Taos Regional Airport; the aircraft don't touch down, local residents say, but they practice their moves repeatedly.

Even on the fringes of Albuquerque, aircraft flying in and out of Kirtland Air Force Base startle pets and young children—and remind everyone that, despite the moniker of "enchantment," New Mexico is, first and foremost, a military state.

Now, the Air Force plans to expand the training area for two of its aircraft, the CV-22 Osprey and the C-130, throughout 94,000 square miles of New Mexico and Colorado.

Since the proposal came into the public eye in September, it has provoked vocal opposition—as well as notable support.

The Town of Taos passed a resolution calling for a halt to low-altitude flights over the town. Las Vegas did the same, and Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Taos counties have all voted to oppose the Low-Altitude Tactical Navigation training area, or LATN.

Santa Fe City Councilor Chris Calvert says the flyovers provide necessary training for Air Force personnel.

The Santa Fe City Council, on the other hand, last week reversed course after initial opposition to pass a resolution supporting the flyovers, while also expressing support for further study of their environmental impact.

The brouhaha—and the conflicting views on the proposal—highlights the inherently conflicted relationship New Mexico has with the military.

In reality, the Air Force's proposed training area is just one tiny piece of a much larger issue—and it's been in the works for years. After all, New Mexico's economy is tethered to the military. The expansion of the training area has everything to do with longstanding efforts by New Mexico lawmakers—Democrat and Republican alike—to keep southeastern New Mexico's Cannon Air Force Base from closing. In fact, New Mexico lawmakers fought to keep Cannon open when it was on the chopping block under the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Committee, or BRAC.

Established by Congress in 1990, BRAC's mandate is to review and analyze the US Department of Defense's recommendations concerning which military installations should remain open and which should be closed.

"Well, this is the mission they got, that helps support their continued existence," Santa Fe City Councilor Chris Calvert says. "It's not a referendum on the war and all that, but we did do that—so they need to do the training to support the mission."

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.

When public outcry catapulted the flyovers into top news, New Mexico's federal representatives weighed in.

Former congressional candidate Carol Miller says military spending in New Mexico doesn’t benefit average citizens.

Following the lead of Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., three members of New Mexico's delegation requested that the Air Force extend the public comment period for LATN by approximately one month. The Sept. 24 letter signed by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján emphasizes the need for the Air Force to allow citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions.

But the three also make clear their support of the training area.

"We support this mission at Cannon Air Force Base and believe it is essential to the security of our nation," the letter states. "The outstanding training opportunities that New Mexico provides can help the 27th SOW better prepare for real life situations and save lives as a result."

Following public reaction against LATN across northern New Mexico, Luján also stated he was "very concerned" about the potential impact of the proposal on New Mexicans and their way of life—and that it was critically important that the military provide opportunities for public comment. "New Mexicans are my primary concern," he said in a prepared statement, "and their voices must be heard."

That said, Cannon plays a role in Curry County's economy—and Luján has consistently said that military personnel must be kept from harm. The implication, of course, is that airmen and women will be kept safe if provided opportunities to train within the LATN area.

In fact, if there is one topic that has always led to bipartisan consensus among New Mexico's congressional delegation, it's military spending in the state.

A critic of those priorities, Carol Miller wasn't surprised by the LATN proposal.

Outgoing executive director of the National Center for Frontier Communities, an organization focused on rural communities, Miller points out that New Mexico's skies were offered up to Cannon five years ago. In June 2005, BRAC held a meeting in Clovis to discuss possible closure of the base. BRAC had first recommended Cannon close in 2002, Miller says, but New Mexico's congressional delegation (including former Sen. Pete Domenici) ensured that didn't happen by encouraging Cannon to find a new mission.

She notes that support for LATN can even be traced back to Gov. Bill Richardson's 2006 State of the State speech. At the time, he said:

Last year, we managed to keep Cannon open—at least until 2010…The key now is finding a new mission for Cannon. It's vitally important that we move as quickly as possible…I've met with Air Force officials…and let them know that the state is prepared to do everything we can and provide whatever assistance is needed to secure a permanent mission for Cannon. Today, I ask the Legislature for the resources to double the size of the base—which will help increase the opportunities for new missions.

Miller points out, however, that military money is not doing much to improve the lives of most of the state's citizens.

"There's no economic advantage to the area around Cannon—it's similar to Los Alamos," Miller, also a former Green Party candidate who ran most recently for the third congressional seat in 2008, says. "You can look up to Los Alamos all the time, on your drive to work, or to Española: There's a trillion dollars of our tax dollars up there, surrounded by a sea of poverty."

It's the same situation with Cannon, she says: "Cannon creates that same myth"—that military spending is what keeps communities alive.

She points out that military spending creates the fewest jobs per dollar than any other industry.

"Fields with the highest jobs per dollar are human needs jobs like clean energy, health care and education," she says, citing a 2009 report from Foreign Policy in Focus, a think tank supported by the Institute for Policy Studies. That report analyzes what would happen if $1 billion were spent on each of three domestic projects other than the military. The report's authors show that investments in clean energy, health care and education create a "much larger" number of jobs across all pay ranges, including mid-range jobs (those that pay between $32,000 and $64,000) and high pay-jobs (paying more than $64,000).

Cannon has been open since World War II, and yet the economic indicators for the area have never truly improved. Curry County is far below the national average in terms of median household income and above the national average when it comes to poverty levels.

Rather than trying to be creative and encourage new industries—such as alternative energy—or develop new economic models, legislators simply continue supporting more and more military funding. But it simply isn't sustainable, Miller says. And the longer New Mexicans remain addicted to a World War II-style military economy, the more they will remain ensnared within a cycle of poverty.

Again, LATN is just one small piece of the issue, but it's the one that has caught the public's attention.

"Nobody involves us and then, all of a sudden, we get a notice that there's an airspace change, and they only want to give a month for public comment," Miller says. "Our delegation, they got us an extra month, but their response has been shocking."

Perhaps equally surprising was the turnaround from a local governmental body that bucked the opposition and, instead, decided to support the flyovers: the Santa Fe City Council.

Like other governments in the north, the Santa Fe City Council originally—and predictably—began moving toward a public resolution against the flyovers.

Initially, Santa Fe City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger introduced a resolution opposing LATN. She eventually changed it to say that the council supports military training, while urging the military to complete the proper environmental studies. It seems, she says, that there is enough room in New Mexico to provide training while, at the same time, avoiding population centers. Leading up to the vote, she heard from probably 30 or 40 constituents—a relatively large number—who opposed LATN under any circumstances.

Councilor Rosemary Romero hopes the Air Force ultimately conducts a more intensive environmental assessment for the LATN.

Then, on Nov. 10, the council voted to support the Air Force's plans, provided it completes environmental studies.

But those studies are already underway; the military is in the beginning stages of its environmental assessment (EA), a study required under the National Environmental Policy Act, Cannon's van der Oord says.

Once the draft EA—which will list comments submitted by the public (the comment period ended this week)—is completed, it will be made available to the public, which can again offer input. Once the final EA has been completed, it will be sent to the Air Force Special Operations Command's headquarters in Hurlburt Field, Fla., which will make the final determination. It will either decide there are no significant impacts—and the LATN area will be open for business—or it will decide the Air Force must undertake a more stringent study, an environmental impact statement, or EIS.
For now, van der Oord expects the EA process to take nine months to one year.

Councilor Rosemary Romero would like the Air Force to undertake an EIS.

"People are most concerned about quality of life impacts," she says, pointing out an environmental impact statement—which requires that agencies consider impacts to everything from wildlife to cultural resources—would ensure the military addresses and mitigates many concerns.

Councilor Calvert points out that the Air Force is already conducting these training flights—and will continue to do so whether or not LATN is implemented. The same type of aircraft stationed at Cannon are already flown out of Kirtland Air Force Base on the southern edge of Albuquerque. But the existing routes are short and narrow and do not include much mountainous terrain.

"So when anyone goes out for training, it's the same route over and over again," Calvert says. "The realism and the effectiveness dissipates because you don't keep having the varied circumstances like you would in the real world."

Calvert emphasizes that the Santa Fe City Council's resolution neither supports nor opposes the military's plans.

Rather, the council is asking the Air Force to be responsive to its concerns regarding environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts.

A CV-22 Osprey assigned to the 71st Special Operations Squadron, 58th Special Operations Wing, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, prepares to land, as part of a training mission in northern New Mexico.

Public debate over the training area has undoubtedly been thought-provoking. Supporting the military's mission, he says, "isn't flag waving, or saying 'We're patriotic and those who are against it are not'—I think it's just being realistic."

Speaking to SFR the day before Veteran's Day, Calvert says his personal stance in support of LATN has much to do with ensuring soldiers have the opportunity to return home as veterans.

"When we're in council, we're always supporting our service people and thanking them for the job they do, thanking our veterans for the job they did, and mentioning them at council and invoking them in prayers," he says. "So to do that and, on the other hand, say, 'We don't want to be affected by anything you might have to do in the process of doing your duty,' is to me a little bit hypocritical."

Calvert himself is a Vietnam-era veteran. He served in the Air Force from 1970 until 1975 and flew the C-141, a cargo plane. (His mission was in no way similar to those pilots face today in Afghanistan, he says, where CV-22 and C-130 pilots will eventually put their training into action.)

"Some people will say, 'It's not my war; I don't support that war,'" he says. "But whether or not you agree with the war, it's not a reason to punish the airmen who are tasked with that mission and need that training."

On the other hand, he thinks that people who support the war in Afghanistan—who think it's essential for national security and defending the United States against terrorism—need to understand some of what war entails. Experiencing the nuisance of low-altitude training flights pales in comparison with what other countries and populations are enduring in these wars, Calvert says, but it does make the war tangible.

And, perhaps, when New Mexicans look up to the skies, feel the roof-shaking roar of a bomber plane or hear the thwap-thwap-thwap of a military helicopter overhead, they will consider the reason the pilots train here: New Mexico’s mountainous and low-population terrain is similar to the landscapes they’ll be staring across in Afghanistan.  SFR

The Osprey Saga

The military's Osprey program began in 1981. Only eight years later, in December 1989, the US Department of Defense directed the Navy to terminate all contracts, saying the aircraft wasn't affordable when compared to helicopters. Production ceased—until Congress disagreed and continued funding the program over the objections of the Defense Department.

However, in a recent draft proposal to Congress, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibly and Reform recommended $200 billion in cuts to the federal budget—including $100 billion in the defense budget. One proposed cut is to the V-22 Osprey models used by the military.

According to a May 2009 report from the General Accounting Office of Congress, the Osprey program has been plagued with problems:

• Although the Defense Department had concluded the Osprey was "operationally effective, but not operationally suitable"—due in part to reliability concerns—the program continued. Then, following two fatal crashes that caused 23 deaths in 2000, the Osprey was grounded. The Defense Department ordered more research and continued low-rate production. Modifications and test design changes occurred and, in 2005, the Defense Acquisition Board approved the Osprey for military use and full-rate production.

• As used in Iraq, the Osprey has not demonstrated its ability to operate in a spectrum of high-threat combat situations as it was intended. Problems include maneuvering limits and the inability to carry a full combat load of 24 Marines if equipped with intended cargo. Efforts to deploy the Osprey aboard Navy ships have also presented challenges: Larger than the helicopters they are replacing, the Ospreys cannot use all of a ship's landing decks. Their "large inventory of repair parts" also constrain necessary hangar space, and their downwash is significantly greater than that of the helicopters. In one case, a second sailor had to be assigned to physically hold down the person acting as the landing guide.

• Costs related to research, development and production have all exceeded initial projections and are expected to rise. There are currently 450 more Ospreys on order.

• Within the Osprey program, an MV-22's cost is $64 million and a CV-22's is $76 million. Their operating cost is $11,000 per flying hour.

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