Air Force conducts training tour

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In an attempt to be more transparent in its training operations in the Bear Mountains north of Magdalena, the U.S. Air Force hosted a second public tour and demonstration for the general public last Thursday, May 22.

John Larson - El Defensor Chieftain: About three dozen area residents were given a tour on May 22 of the training site used by the 58th Special Operations Wing based at Kirkland AFB. Top, a CV-22 Osprey, a VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft used for rapid special ops troop deployment in remote areas.

Col. Stephen Andreasen, Lt. Col. Brandon Deacon and SMSGT Curtis Andes of the 58th Special Ops Wing at Kirtland AFB led the caravan of about a dozen vehicles to the search and rescue training site off Riley Road near Bear Springs Canyon.

The training is conducted on U.S. Forest Service land, and the Air Force is operating under a temporary permit. Due to several landowners and other residents in the vicinity of the Bear Mountains issuing formal complaints about noise and other nighttime disturbances caused by the exercises, the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland AFB has hosted several public meetings and tours since last November.

John Larson - El Defensor Chieftain: The three man crew for the Air Force’s HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter used for combat search and rescue. It has also been used to help locate missing hikers and campers in New Mexico

According to Cibola National Forest public affairs officer Ruth Sutton, who, with Ranger Dennis Aldridge oversaw the tour, 35 people attended the tour, not counting other Forest Service or military personnel.

“I thought the tour answered a lot of questions that the public had about military training exercises on the Cibola,” Sutton said. “As you know, we had a tour in March to explain some of the para-rescue training exercises that are conducted on the Magdalena Ranger District and that really helped explain what that group does, but the people who attended that tour, had a lot of questions about helicopters and asked if they could have another tour for helicopter demonstrations, which is what we saw on Thursday.”

The tour featured takeoffs and landings of two special ops aircraft, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. The Osprey has been deployed in both combat and rescue missions over Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Libya, by the Air Force.

Andreasen, vice commander of the 58th Special Operations Wing, said the Bear Mountain area is particularly suited for training.

“High altitude is particularly challenging. It’s what makes this site a good place to train,” Andreasen said. “It’s very realistic and similar to the hostile environments they would face. Altitude is probably one of the toughest things.

“Differences in air density, pressure and altitude, that’s how an aircraft flies,” he said. “If a student never sees that he’s ill-prepared (in a combat situation).”

Andreasen said budget cuts also limit his unit’s options for training sites.

“A big part is how much fuel we burn to get to other military locations. Right now we’re on a resource constrained environment,” he added. “Our budget just isn’t what it used to be. There just isn’t the same money we would need to fly hours to existing military locations. If we had to fly a couple or three hours longer to get to our landing zone, it would really cripple our flying and training program.”

Another issue is the availability of using other bases or military reservations when their own activities or testing are taking place.

“At White Sands Missile Range they are testing new systems on a regular basis. If they’re conducting a test we’re simply not allowed to use it,” Andreasen said.

A similar constraint involves Kirtland’s Joint Utility Facility arrangement with Albuquerque’s Sunport, when training can only be conducted when no commercial traffic is present.

“What we’re hoping here is to work out a solution that works for everybody,” he said.

To that end, he said in order to reduce impact to residents, no-flyover areas can be designated on the maps the helicopter and Osprey pilots use.

Before the Air Force can be issued a 20-year special use permit, several steps need to be taken by the Forest Service:

Finalizing responses to comments.

Finalize the environmental assessment. The Cibola National Forest will decide whether or not to issue a special use permit allowing military training within the Cibola NF and the terms of this permit, and the Air Force will decide the scope of resources and staffing needed to conduct the training exercises.

Prepare draft Decision Notices with the final environmental assessment. A legal notice will be published in the newspaper of record. In addition, letters will be sent out to people who have provided specific written comments during either the scoping or the public comment periods. This starts the 45-day objection period.

A final decision notice will be issued. However, this will take place after all objections have been resolved.

A plan of operation will be drafted. The plan defines the terms of the permit – including the scope and number of exercises; communications, etc. A special use permit will also be issued.