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Public concerns include more air traffic, wind turbines
by Lindy Steeves
The Air National Guard met with citizens of Harney County on June 20 to discuss concerns with their proposed Oregon Airspace Initiative.
The proposal would increase the training airspace of the 173d Fighter Wing Air National Guard Base near Klamath Falls. The new airspace border would cover parts of Harney County and is near the Burns area. This increase in available airspace will allow student pilots to train in 21st century combat styles.
After a brief summary of the proposal and the local areas it would affect, Colonel Chris Casson opened up the meeting to public discussion and concerns.
Local airplane owners expressed worries about overcrowded airspace and flying conflicts. Members of the initiative committee said that they would be flying on a different altitude than privately-owned planes, and there would be advance communication when they were planning to fly. The F15s are equipped with on-board radar that will alert pilots to any nearby aircraft. The committee also said that a noise complaint hotline had been implemented for citizens if the need arose.
Another worry concerned the proposed wind turbines and possible collisions when pilots were flying at low altitude. After showing maps of the proposed expansion zone, Col. Casson said that the possible wind turbine areas were outside of the expansion borders, and the fighters would be flying too high to contact the 400-foot tall turbines.
One concerned citizen asked about the possibility of drones being used in association with the changing training routines. Captain Stephen Bomar and Col. Casson assured that there was no potential for drone usage. If the possibility ever arose, future proposals would need to be drawn up and additional scoping meetings would be held.
Other concerns included the weapons carried aboard the F15s. Col. Casson reported that, as the pilots would be students and teachers practicing aerial combat maneuvers, there would be no weaponry on board of any kind.
In anticipation of possible community and environmental concern, the committee had redrawn the expansion line so that the Malheur Wildlife Range and the Steens Mountain were avoided. The altered expansion zone will protect wildlife from noise and possible flight pattern conflicts. In further efforts to avoid wildlife interaction, the unit will continue to contact local fish and wildlife offices before they allow flights to run. If bird flight patterns are “high” or active, flights will be cancelled.
“We don’t want to fight with people or communities over this. This is why we have these meetings, so we can hear all these concerns and try to work around them,” Capt. Bomar said.
Before the proposal is approved and put into affect, additional tests, studies and meetings must be held to meet the requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The FAA will then conduct a year-long (minimum) series of tests and meetings of its own. If it is accepted by the FAA, NEPA and the community, the Oregon Airspace Initiative may take anywhere from three to five years to pass.