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Some locals react to airspace expansion plan

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Airport directors in Roswell and Artesia had wanted the U.S. Air Force to choose some other option besides expanding its F-16 fighter pilot training airspace only in this area of the state, but they now must work with the decision that the Air Force has landed on after a five-year process.

The Air Force has identified the Talon MOA expansion, known as Alternative 1, as the preferred option in its final Environmental Impact Statement released Feb. 5 and under a review period until March 8.

Staff of the Artesia Municipal Airport and city of Artesia officials expressed their concerns in 2018 and 2019 during scoping meetings and public hearings because the Talon MOA expansion will be a significant increase of airspace use in Eddy County.

The existing Talon MOA also covers portions of Otero and Chaves counties, but the expanded version would cover a much larger area in Eddy County.

Legislators, city officials and business representatives from Eddy County said during meetings in 2018 and 2019 that the restriction of airspace for as many as 11,000 training sorties a year could hamper crop dusters, pilots who inspect oil and gas facilities and pipelines by air, and passenger flight services throughout Eddy County.

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“The city of Artesia attended the Air Force meetings and expressed our concerns regarding harm to our airport, to no avail,” said Airport Supervisor Lance Goodrich. “While we regret the Air Force’s decision, we support the military and hope for a positive outcome.”

Roswell officials also had made comments during the scoping process and EIS draft period, initially expressing concerns that the expanded MOA could disrupt commercial passenger service to and from Dallas, as well as military pilot training conducted by the U.S. Navy that sometimes occurs at the Roswell Air Center.

But, after the years-long process, Air Center Director Scott Stark said Friday that he now thinks the Talon expansion probably won’t have a large effect on the Roswell Air Center.

“The changes should have no effect on commercial flights,” he said. “When the Navy is at Roswell they will need to work with the Air Force to schedule use of the airspace. The Air Force has stated they are willing to do this.”

He did reiterate his preference for what has been identified as Alternative 3.

“Alternative 3 would offer more options for airspace use and aid in deconflicting with the Navy,” he said.

During a November 2019 public hearing in Roswell before Air Force hearing officers, all the people who indicated a preference said they would opt for Alternative 3. That is a combination of Alternative 1 and Alternative 2 and would have expanded the special use airspace both in the Talon MOA as well as in MOAs near White Sands Missile Range. Because both eastern and western regions of the state would have been used for sorties in Alternative 3, that option would have reduced the number of training sorties and the impacts in any one region.

Alternative 2 is the option to expand airspace only to MOAs west of White Sands Missile Range, while Alternative 4 would make no changes.

An Air Force representative said that comments on the final EIS will be accepted during the review period, but public input was given the most weight before the final report was published.

“The public comment period that was the most meaningful public comment period was after the draft EIS,” said Robin Divine, a National Environmental Policy Act program manager for the Air Force and the project manager for the Holloman Airspace EIS. “All those comments are in and captured in the final EIS in Appendix C.”

She said about 17,000 comments were made in writing and at various meetings, and changes were made to the EIS as a result of the ideas and information that people contributed.

She also said the final EIS represents more than five years of analysis and reflects the needs of the Air Force as well as the agencies it works with, including the Federal Aviation Administration. The EIS also is required to consider the possible impacts on many different aspects of the region, including wildlife, vegetation, air quality, noise levels and housing values and other socioeconomic factors.

“It was weighed against all of our cooperating agencies, all the comments received, mission requirements,” Divine said. “It was a total incorporation of external stakeholders, internal requirements.”

After the review period, the Secretary of the Air Force will prepare a record of decision, she said, which also will be published in the Federal Register, probably in late March.

Then the Federal Aviation Administration will begin its process to develop a record of decision. Divine said she is not sure how long that will take.

“FAA has its own processes, and I can’t speak directly to those,” she said.

According to the executive summary of the final EIS, the expanded special use airspace is needed because F-16 jets have evolved since they were first made in 1974. The fourth-generation aircraft now include “advanced weapons systems.” The existing MOAs and special airspace now available to Holloman for training do not provide “optimal” and efficient opportunities to instruct F-16 pilots on all the systems, communications and weapon components of the aircraft, according to the EIS.

“This results in fewer pilots ready for the combat mission,” the executive summary states. “The Air Force currently has a pilot shortage which is further affected by the disruption to training, ultimately impacting National Security.”

Information about the Holloman airspace optimization plan is posted at http://hollomanafbairspaceeis.com/ and available at public libraries, including the Roswell Public Library at 301 N. Pennsylvania Ave.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.