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Air Force seeks to explain airspace expansion

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“We are here more or less to encourage comments,” says Edward Chupein, deputy chief of operational training systems and infrastructure with Air Force Headquarters, as he presents information to the Roswell City Council Thursday night about possible expansions of military training airspace in the Roswell-Artesia-Carlsbad area. City Manager Joe Neeb is seen in the background. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

U.S. Air Force officials have spent the past two days telling local pilots, businesses and government leaders that concepts about expanding military training airspace in southeastern New Mexico are just that — concepts — with nothing set in stone and with compromises and new ideas still possible in the months and years ahead.

But some local business and government leaders are still expressing concerns that future restrictions on airspace use in the region will hit them in the pocketbook or alter their lives.

At the behest of U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-Santa Fe) and Martin Heinrich (D-Albuquerque), Ed Chupein, deputy chief of operational training systems and infrastructure with Air Force Headquarters, and Holloman Airspace Manager Juan Lavarreda Perez held several meetings Wednesday and Thursday in Carlsbad, Artesia and Roswell.

They met with state and local elected officials, the staff of Congressional leaders from the region, airport directors, and pilots and business leaders to answer questions about the Special Use Airspace Optimization Plan for Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo.

Chupein said revising the military airspace, first designed in the 1960s and no longer compatible with modern aircraft or flight training needs, is crucial for Holloman’s mission to produce more F-16 fighter pilots. He characterized the pilot shortage, estimated to be at least 700 people, as being at a “crisis stage.”

Ideas to revise the Holloman training airspace are still open to change, Chupein said.

“This is a starting point. We had to come up with something that the public could comment on,” he said at a Thursday night presentation to the Roswell City Council. “And unfortunately it happens every time when we do this that people assume that this is the final objective that we are trying to achieve. That is the furthest thing from the truth. What this is, is our best guess at a design that will allow us to meet our mission requirements and minimize the impact on the public.”

He explained that the impacts meant to be mitigated include not only effects on wildlife and plant species and air quality, but also concerns regarding economic consequences, social justice, noise levels and preservation of cultural and historical sites.

That is why Chupein said that specific information about how expansions of military airspace affect people, even if interactions have been at times “defensive” or “combative,” are valuable to coming up with the best plan.

“We are here more or less to encourage comments,” he said.

People have about two more months to submit emails, mail and comments via the web before a federal contractor develops the draft Environmental Impact Statement. Once submitted, comments are part of an official record and must be considered.

The Environmental Impact Statement is only one step of many that is expected to result in an implementation of a revised airspace plan for Holloman by 2020. Public meetings will occur again after a draft is developed, probably by August, Chupein said, and he said it is during the comment period that will follow the release of the draft that the public can have the largest impact.

At the current time, Chupein explained, the Air Force is considering two conceptual alternatives for expansion.

Alternative One is expansion of what is known as the Talon Military Operating Area (MOA), which covers southeastern New Mexico and would affect airports in Carlsbad, Roswell and Artesia.

Alternative Two involves the area west of White Sands Missile Range and would expand an existing MOA and possibly add another one.

Roswell International Airport DIrector Scott Stark explained that the expanded Talon MOA could affect U.S. Navy pilot training missions that have occurred in the past in Roswell, which some have described as bringing in millions to the local economy, and would probably require American Airlines flights to and from Dallas to alter its routes at times. The flights to and from Phoenix would not be affected by proposed changes to the Talon airspace.

In a meeting in Artesia Wednesday afternoon, concerns also were voiced by crop dusters, a charter flight service in Carlsbad and oil and gas industry executives who fly over fields to inspect pipelines.

“I am conflicted,” said state Rep. James Townsend (R-Artesia) during Wednesday’s meeting at the Artesia Chamber of Commerce, “because I want to be your supporter but you aren’t giving me much room to work when you are impacting my community like this and especially when you tell me that you care what I think but you didn’t want me on the front end of it, you only want me to comment on what you are proposing.”

Townsend stressed that officials need to recognize that the oil and gas basins in the region are of vital importance to the regional and national economy.

Flight instructor Jim Ballard of JB Flight Services in Carlsbad also voiced a suggestion, “Go south,” he said, explaining that the Air Force should explore airspace around Van Horn and Hudspeth in Texas because it has relatively little air traffic.

Worries also have been raised about emergency helicopter flights to and from area hospitals. Some people even talked about concern about the effect of noise on bats in Carlsbad Caverns and on the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

In response to some concerns, Chupein told Artesia and Roswell audiences that the Air Force must grant priority to emergency aircraft carrying patients with urgent needs.

The Air Force also has communicated with the U.S. Navy about use of the Roswell airspace for training and has received Navy comments that will be considered as part of the plan, Chupein said.

He also talked about developing plans in other places in the nation that mitigated effects on endangered species, and he contended that the military branch has a history of working with loggers, crop dusters and other airspace users to make accommodations.

“Airspace belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration, and it has to be released to the AIr Force,” he said. “It is the goal of the Air Force to be good neighbors with general and commercial aircraft.”

Information about the airspace expansion and how to make comments is available on the web at hollomanafbairspaceeis.com.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.