The U.S. Air Force is seeking more airspace for training F-16 fighter pilots at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo.
The Air Force is proposing three options for expanding its existing military operations area over Eddy, Otero and Chaves counties to increase space for training pilots at required altitudes within 120 nautical miles of Holloman.
One alternative would expand the existing training area south toward Carlsbad Caverns National Park and east toward the Lea County line.
The other two alternatives would establish new operation areas over 7 million acres west of White Sands Missile Range, over the Rio Grande Valley and Gila Wilderness and population centers in several counties.
Each option would also return older Air Force operational areas, no longer in use, to the National Airspace System. Meanwhile, the active operating areas — depending on which plan is selected — could see up to 10,000 sorties flown annually.
The proposals would not require any construction on the ground, and the Air Force says no personnel changes at the base would result from the changes.
Most speakers opposed to plans
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Air Force is required to complete an environmental impact statement in a process that includes public comment. A series of public meetings in affected communities concluded with a meeting at the Ramada Palms Hotel in Las Cruces Thursday evening, attended by approximately 100 people.
The hearing was conducted by a military judge who is not assigned to Holloman and is not involved in the proposed action. There was no opportunity for questions and answers with project team leaders, but some information was provided on visual displays and in a video presentation that opened the session.
Among the 17 people who delivered comments, none supported the more expansive alternatives 2 or 3, one endorsed the first option (representing the smallest footprint over less populated areas), and most were in favor of a fourth option under the NEPA process: taking no action at all, which would leave the status quo in place.
The Air Force says that the status quo will cause delays in pilots’ training and hinder national defense. The service says that the airspace currently in use is not adequate for training with modern aircraft.
F-16 training also occurs in restricted airspace under the domain of two U.S. Army installations: White Sands Missile Range and McGregor Range at Fort Bliss.
What are the impacts?
Individuals, some representing environmental and local economic organizations, criticized the draft environmental impact statement for providing little data supporting claims that the impacts of overflights and noise on wildlife would be minimal.
Speakers also mentioned recent instances of F-16’s and other single-engine planes crashing. On Monday, an Air Force pilot ejected while landing an F-16 at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. On Oct. 29, an F-16 training flight out of Holloman ended in a non-fatal crash.
Several speakers were civil pilots who said the proposals would create obstacles for civilian aircraft in the corridor between southern New Mexico and Albuquerque.
Ted Sanders of the National Association for Flight Instructors added that the proposed actions would conflict with space needed for training civilian pilots. “We have the same problem you have,” Sanders said to the uniformed officers present.
Although no live fire training is planned in the proposed areas, the Air Force said that flares and chaff, used in defensive maneuvers, would be included in the proposed operations. Several speakers objected to any use of flares or chaff, citing the risk of wildfires.
Las Cruces City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez said the proposal underestimates the impact of flights over outdoor recreational areas, including the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. He said the Air Force should have contacted city leaders to discuss actions that might conflict with efforts in Las Cruces to develop local tourism and outdoor recreational industries.
Carrie Hamblen, head of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce and a candidate for the New Mexico Senate, said “outdoor recreation powers a vast economic engine” for the region.
The draft EIS is available online at www.HollomanAFBairSpaceEIS.com/ and public comments will be accepted through Jan. 31, 2020.
After the comment period, a final EIS is to be published, after which a decision will be announced by the Secretary of the Air Force’s office. The final action would also require approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.
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