The Air Assault Over Northern New Mexico

By KAY MATTHEWS

A June 2 article in the Santa Fe New Mexican about a U.S. Air Force C-130H Hercules circling above the city got everyone “abuzz” as to why the military was flying over an urban area for an hour. The paper didn’t get any answers from the military bases it contacted, or acknowledgement it was even theirs.

Up in northern New Mexico, these four engine turboprop planes have been flying over rural villages (disclaimer: including my village of El Valle) at levels just above treetop for years, pissing off a lot of people, including the folks who work with the Peaceful Skies Coalition to stop military expansion, particularly the creation of Low Altitude Training Area (LATA) for military training flights over New Mexico and Colorado. On their website they have a page for individuals to report military flyovers so they can monitor the activity.

In a 2015 La Jicarita article Carol Miller, of Peaceful Skies Coalition, wrote about the formation of the Coalition:

“Peaceful Skies Coalition came together very quickly in response to an emergency. In 2010 all sectors of the region came together to fight a massive takings of airspace by the Air Force over northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The purpose was to “train” Special Operators for house-by-house warfare and their Environmental Assessment clearly stated that they would be practicing spying, tracking people, making very high risk, low altitude night flights and always polluting refueling. This dangerous plan would ruin one of the rare pristine areas remaining in the entire United States. In 2012 the Air Force backed off trying to push through the Low Altitude Training Area (LATA) with a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The FONSI was indefensible so the NEPA effort was temporarily shelved while an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was evaluated.”

Apparently no EIS has been promulgated, or at least disclosed to the public. The 2012 Environmental Assessment (EA), issued from Canon Air Force Base, stated that while the need for low-level training exists, “emerging training requirements based on lessons learned in Afghanistan as well as training requirements identified in the 2007 ‘Air Force Special Operations Command Assets Beddown at Cannon AFB’ Environmental Impact Statement now overlap with the need for the proposed low-altitude training.” So the low-level flights Canon deemed necessary continue unabated over northern New Mexico.

Maps included in the original Draft EA for the LATA show the desired training area. Map #1, Alternative 1, includes almost the entirety of northern New Mexico, the eastern counties in proximity to Canon Air Force Base, and almost all of Colorado except the far eastern portion.

Map #2 has excluded Taos, Española, Los Alamos, and Santa Fe.

Map #3 shows that Cannon airplanes can fly essentially anywhere they want.

Pat Leahan of the Las Vegas Peace and Justice Center has recorded not only numerous flyovers of the low-flying C-130s but in March and April of this year began observing C-130s circling the town, much like what happened in Santa Fe and what was also recorded in Los Alamos in April. Commenting on her observance of an April 21st flyover Leahan noted: “Typically the C-130 will circle for 1-3 hours, sometimes joined eventually by another C-130, or a few V-22s to circle our city and practice touch-n-go exercises on our municipal airport runway. For now though, it’s just the single C-130 flying a tight loud circle over the margins of the city. Tonight it appears to be flying about 200 ft. lower than usual. Typically, they fly over Vegas when the weather is unusual in some way (very cold or very windy or in the midst of a storm or fog) but tonight the weather is calm.”

Leahan is also concerned about the wildfire risk of these fly-overs as they travel across Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico and the possibility of perchlorate contamination in our watersheds when the jets refuel in mid-air (a recent refuel was spotted above Ojo Sarco). A Cannon AFB representative responded to Leahan’s question about this possibility at a LATN hearing in Santa Fe: “… jet fuel leaks with every successful mid-air refueling …”

While several members of the Peaceful Skies Coalition, and the reporter of the New Mexican story, have contacted the main New Mexico airbases—Cannon in Clovis, Kirtland in Albuquerque, and Holloman in Alamogordo—none have received a definitive answer as to whose planes are buzzing and circling our communities. I called the Cannon AFB Public Affairs Customer Service Desk and also left a message on the Cannon website to ask again if the current flights originate there as part of an extended LATA program. After receiving no response I called again and this time spoke with a Public Affairs staffer who looked up my website request and said he would respond to my questions:

  1. Has Cannon Air Force Base conducted an updated EA or EIS for the LATA program.
  2. If there is no NEPA analysis, what is the protocol for both the low-level flights and the circle flights over urban areas.
  3. What areas of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado are identified as flyover areas.
  4. Are there maps of these areas available to the public.

A week later, with no response, I called again and left a message. Finally, the Chief of Media Operations, Misty Mercado, called and said she was emailing me the answers to my questions.

Here are her responses in full:

Q1.  Statement on C-130 aircraft over Santa Fe, NM

A1.  Cannon Air Force Base units routinely conduct flight training above or near towns and cities throughout New Mexico where airspace is open. To prepare for real world special operations, this training ensures aircrew proficiency with a variety of conditions and terrains. The FAA is responsible for the development and enforcement of rules for aircraft flights, ensuring the safe and efficient use of U.S. airspace, and all of our flights are conducted within those rules and guidelines.

 Q2. What environmental impact studies or other rules exist that regulate Cannon AFB air traffic in Northern New Mexico?

A2. Aircraft assigned to Cannon Air Force base adhere to New Mexico air traffic regulations established by the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA guidance and airspace availability go into the specifics of where and for how long we can conduct training. In instances near populated areas, such as Santa Fe, our aircraft mitigate noise and disturbance to our communities by using the highest altitude allowable by flight conditions to provide cost effective and safe training. For information regarding federal airspace standards, please contact the FAA Office of Environment and Energy.

Q3. What protocols specific to the area do our aircraft abide by?   

A3. We train over a variety of areas within New Mexico.  The area surrounding Santa Fe offers challenging elevation and terrain features for our crews to retain proficiency and is an extremely valuable asset to maintaining readiness.  A variety of factors such as weather, air traffic control authorities, FAA guidance and airspace availability go into the specifics of where and for how long we can conduct training.  In instances near populated areas, such as Santa Fe, our aircraft mitigate noise and disturbance to our communities by using the highest altitude allowable by conditions to provide cost effective and safe training.

So, there has been no further NEPA analysis of the effects of these flights on our communities as the air force relies solely on FAA regulations. Mercado fails to explain any guidelines about low-level flights over northern New Mexico villages and failed to send a map of exactly what “airspace is open.” According to Carol Miller, “This is the standard non-response from Cannon afb. This Chief of Media Operations appears to have no idea about areas where the public has been told low flights are to be avoided. These include wilderness areas such as the Pecos Wilderness and tribal lands, especially Picuris and Taos where ancient and historic structures are very sensitive to low altitude flights.”

Miller goes on to say: “The planes pop over the ridge in pairs and careen at very low altitudes overhead, many times at altitudes of 200’ AGL or lower. My neighbors and I have lost enjoyment of our land and homes. First there is a low rumble then we run to the windows or outside and extremely low overhead is a speeding Ghost Rider with a 132’ wingspan. Our hearts pound, dogs bark, children scream as the planes continues on their way, almost always headed over the Pecos Wilderness, as we hope they clear the ridge at the edge of the valley. The night training with no lights always creates fear of a crash. Worst of all is knowing the purpose of this training is to create terror and kill villagers around the world.”

A neighbor, Betsy Williams, lives tucked into the ridge above Ojo Sarco and told Miller: “You lie wondering if this is the one we are going to be hit to smithereens.”

The same day I received the response from Mercado jet planes roared over Llano San Juan and El Valle at cloud level, frightening both humans and animals. A new kind of assault? Please report flyovers of any kind to the Peaceful Skies Coalition sighting page so the group can continue to monitor and work towards peaceful skies.

 

 

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