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Locals comment on airspace expansion

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Lt. Joshua Thompson, Holloman Air Force Base public affairs officer, left, and Lt. Col. Colin Eichenberger, a U.S. Air Force lawyer and a hearing judge, head Tuesday’s public hearing about planned Holloman Air Force Base airspace expansion that likely will affect several New Mexico counties, including Chaves County. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Air Force representatives hold hearing about Holloman proposals

A plan to expand Holloman Air Force Base airspace for F-16 training by combining areas in the eastern and western parts of the state was the preferred alternative for those who indicated a favored option at a Tuesday public hearing at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center.

A couple of people also suggested that the airspace “floor,” or the lowest point at which the jets can fly, be raised.

Holloman and other Air Force officials held the meeting in Roswell as part of a series of eight hearings statewide that will run until Dec. 5 to inform people about plans for Holloman airspace expansion and the analyses of an Environmental Impact Study of possible alternatives.

The hearing also gave people the opportunity to provide verbal comments at the meeting. Those interested also have until Jan. 31 to submit written remarks. Comments will be considered as the Air Force works toward making a decision, expected sometime in 2020.

Four of the six speakers at the Roswell meeting favored what is known as Alternative 3. The other two made remarks without indicating a preference for any alternative.

Alternative 1 involves the so-called Talon Military Operations Area and the Air Traffic Controlled Assigned Airspace that sits above the MOA. The Talon MOA affects Eddy County primarily, but also expands into Otero and Chaves counties. Alternative 2 involves expansion into western and southern counties and into two counties in Arizona.

Alternative 3 combines elements of Alternative 1 and Alternative 2 to reduce impacts in each region. For example, the number of training sorties in the Talon MOA under Alternative 3 would be only about 6,800 a year and only about 270 annually in the Roswell Air Center area. That compares to an estimated 10,000 sorties in the Talon MOA under Alternative 2.

“I would say three is the best,” said Scott Stark, Roswell Air Center director. “It spreads it out and it gives (the Air Force) choices. When there is weather involved, they can go east or … west. My thoughts are, if we go with just one, and that is our area, and we have the Navy come here, then they don’t have the option to go west, so that makes sense to do three.”

During earlier scoping sessions where preliminary concepts were presented by the Air Force, Stark expressed concerns that the original ideas — which did not include Alternative 3 — could affect commercial airline service to and from Dallas from the Roswell airport and U.S. Navy pilot training that occurs at times at the Roswell Air Center. While Alternative 3 might require some re-routing of commercial airline flights, Stark did not consider the impacts to be major.

Stark chose not to speak during the meeting, he said, because others had made the points he was going to make.

Those who expressed their preference for Alternative 3 during the hearing were Chaves County Commissioner Robert Corn, who is also a private pilot and flight instructor; Rep. Phelps Anderson (R-Roswell); David Stevens, a private pilot; and Juanita Finger, who lives in an area where training flights have occurred.

Finger and rancher Tim Jennings talked about how F-16 jets flying over their homes and livestock can be very loud and cause disturbances.

“Ranching-wise, it is extremely difficult when you have a plane coming over, a jet, coming as fast as they can at 300 feet,” said Jennings.

Stevens and Jennings also recommended raising the airspace floor above 500 feet.

Jerry Putman, Roswell air traffic controller, who explained that he spoke only for himself, said that some information in the Air Force video presentation was “a little bit misleading.”

He said that medical evacuation flights do not have priority to travel through MOAs and instead have to go around them. He also said that MOAs cannot be toggled on and off while they are active.

According to its draft Environmental Impact Study report, Holloman wants to expand its airspace because advancements in aircraft technology over the years require more “volume” and “attributes” than provided in the current training airspace available to Holloman, which is near the White Sands Missile Range.

The draft EIS report analyzes how the various alternatives will affect commercial and civilian aviation, wildlife and vegetation, noise levels, air quality, recreational land use and several other areas of potential importance to regions.

The EIS is available at HollomanAFBAirspaceEIS.com. Comments can be submitted via the website or mailed to an address provided on the comment form.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.