WHO OWNS THE AIR? JET FIGHTERS AND CONTROVERSY BUZZ THE WHITE MOUNTAINS
Laconia, N.H. — To thousands of hikers, campers, and scenery gazers, the tree-encrusted granite ledges of New Hampshire's White Mountains are an idyllic recreation area , where well-appointed trailers squat in roadside campgrounds and chamois-shirted backpackers trundle into the back woods.
But to the Air Force and the Air National Guard, the White Mountains are south central Germany.
Two Air National Guard units want to use the air over the White Mountain National Forest to train in low-level, high-speed maneuvers, low being 100 feet above the ground and speed being over 300 miles an hour.
That has upset the hikers and campers and residents of the White Mountain area, who don't particularly care to have their fishing expeditions or lunch hours interrupted by fighter planes simulating bombing and strafing runs and would like to have some control over the air above their houses and businesses.
The White Mountain area appeals to the guard units -because it approximates the European terrain they expect to fight in, if that ever becomes necessary. It's fairly close to their home bases in Windsor Locks, Conn., and Westfield, Mass., and, they say, reasonably unpopulated.
What they want to do is designate 1,000 square miles of air as a Military Operating Area, or MOA, named Yankee 2, over northeastern New Hampshire, most of which is part of the White Mountain National Forest. The area would start 100 feet above the ground and extend upward to 9,000 feet above sea level, which, given the mountainous terrain, is considerably less than 9,000 feet above the ground in most places. It is snuggled under an already-established MOA known as Yankee 1, which soars from 9,000 feet above sea level to as far up as anyone cares to go.
This MOA would give the two guard units, the 103rd Tactical Fighter Group from Connecticut and the 104th from Massachusetts, special permission to fly faster than usual (over 250 knots) in the area. It would also give them preference over other military aircraft to train in the airspace. The MOA would be used in daylight only, and only under visual flight rules, by which the pilot has to have certain -minimum visibility.
Both of these units fly ''Warthogs,'' Fairchild A-10 -Thunderbolt fighters, which are planes designed to give close air support to ground units. Designed to attack enemy ground forces, the single-seat planes carry the ''biggest gun on a fighter aircraft,'' which ''makes great big holes in tanks,'' an Air Force spokesman, Maj. Michael Gallagher, says. They generally fly in pairs, or with a helicopter partner. They are slow planes, relatively speaking, but are highly maneuverable, able to fly down close to the surface, zigzagging all the way.
This low-level flying is a critical part of the A-10s' role in battle. Until now, the two guard units have been training at low altitudes on designated low-altitude routes between their home bases and Camp Drum, N.Y., and Rangeley, Maine. But the problem, Maj. John J. Collins of the 103rd points out, is that those routes are only five to eight miles wide, and the pilots quickly memorize them.
So he dreamed up the idea for Yankee 2, an area where he and the 37 other pilots in the two units could train on random routes close to the ground at the speed they need.
The MOA would not give them permission to fly at the low altitudes. They already have that. Current federal air regulations give any plane permission to fly as low as 500 feet over built-up areas, buildings, automobiles, people, etc. , and as low as 100 feet in other areas. The only thing the MOA would give the units that they don't already have is permission to fly faster than regulations allow.
In fact, the A-10s have been flying at those low altitudes on occasion in the White Mountains. And this is why some people in New Hampshire, led by Gov. Hugh Gallen and US Rep. Judd Gregg (R), are concerned. They are not convinced that the White Mountains are the best place for the A-10s to train, and they maintain that in the past the planes have violated the low-altitude regulations by flying too close to houses and populated areas.
''A legitimate concern that the people have is, well, if these guys are breaking the present regulations, who is going to have enough power to stop them from breaking the new regulations, which are a lot more lenient in terms of how close they can be above the ground, and how fast they are going to fly?'' That's Paul Bofinger talking. He chairs the White Mountain Environment Committee, which , along with two aviation groups, was asked by Representative Gregg's office to respond to the Yankee 2 proposal.
Governor Gallen and Mr. Gregg got involved in the matter when a routine Federal Aviation Adminstration public hearing last June aroused public opposition to the proposal. The FAA, taking the Air National Guard at its word that its proposal satisfied environmental concerns, was satisfied with the air safety aspects of the plan, and it was prepared to establish the MOA until the hearing.
But it quickly became apparent that the public was much more concerned about the environmental and economic -aspects of the plan than any one official had assumed. The Air Force retreated from the clamor and asked the FAA to hold up a bit on giving approval. It is the FAA that has final say on the matter, since it has exclusive jurisdiction over the airspace in this country.
''I guess you could say we own the air,'' says David Hurley, chief of the operations, procedures, and airspace branch of the FAA, which is concerned only with the air safety aspects of the plan, and must simply sit back and let the state and the Air Force wade through the environmental, economic, and social concerns of the plan.
''The Air Force thought it would breeze through the state, collect its MOA, and start flying,'' says Michael Power, an assistant to Governor Gallen. He expected that the New Hampshire delegation would sit down with the Air Force sometime soon to see what compromise can be worked out.
''We take our environment and our White Mountain area very seriously, and before anybody comes around, even the Air Force, and starts using that area in a manner which has the potential of creating problems, we think you ought to do your homework and come to us with a proposal that shows some concern for the local sensitivities,'' says Mr. Bofinger, who is also president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, a forester, and an old hand at compromise between environmental groups and the federal government. He was a chief engineer of the compromise plan through Franconia Notch several years ago.
The federal government wanted to build a multi-lane highway through the notch , a sliver of scenic beauty between two seemingly endless piles of just-as-scenic mountains. After years of talking in and out of court, the federal government scaled down its plans to a two-lane road, and even kicked in money to refurbish the state park in the notch, which is home to the famous ''Old Man of the Mountains,'' the rock profile held together with pins and wiring and crossed fingers which, many maintain, would have tumbled into nothingness had the full-scale highway blasting occurred.''
I don't think there is another national forest in the country that could have as high a level of citizen interest and participation in management as this one, '' says Dick Pierce, acting administrative officer of the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF). That assessment is based on 20 years in the Forest Service, the last two here in Laconia with the WMNF as the lands, minerals, soil , air, water and environmental analysis officer.
Much of the controversy deals with the environmental -assessment prepared by Major Collins. Paul Bofinger brands it ''totally inadequate.'' The Aviation Association of New Hampshire and the state aeronautics commission agree with him. ''We all agree they did a lousy job,'' Bofinger says. ''I think the Air Force will get that message. The question then is how much of an improvement they will come back with.''
The Environmental Protection Agency also took exception to the environmental assessment, raising several issues, including questioning the method used to determine the noise impact. Although standard techniques were used to evaluate the noise an average person would hear, those methods average the noise level, rather than take into account its sudden, high level.
Spokesmen for the White Mountain National Forest say they were not contacted while the environmental assessment was being prepared.
''Yankee 2 took us somewhat by surprise,'' Dick Pierce concedes. The first his office heard of it was from the aeronautics commission, he says, in March 1981, although it had been in the works for months. Mr. Pierce would not comment further. Mike Power of Governor Gallen's office calls the exclusion of the WMNF from the preparation of the statement ''irresponsible.''
Dick Pierce and others at the forest headquarters here are not worried about the effects of the training procedures on the forest. They are, as they say, concerned about its effect on the people who use the forest, some 2.7 million ''visitor-days'' last year. (A ''visitor-day'' is a statistic only a statistician could think up: one person visiting the forest for 12 hours, or 12 people visiting the forest for one hour each.)
''Our objective is to manage an area that people can come to and enjoy, have their expectations fulfilled as much as possible, consistent with other legitimate uses of the forest,'' Mr. Pierce says.
Roughly 45,000 people live within the boundaries of the Yankee 2 MOA. Naturally, they don't all object to the training area. Without exception, though , they all agree on one thing: that it is necessary for the pilots to train. Somewhere. Just not in their backyards. Or, if it has to be in their backyards, just when and where they say.
''The classic way to fight an environmental issue is to question the need for the proposal in the first place,'' Mr. Bofinger says. That's what he and the WMEC did with the struggle over Franconia Notch. ''We're saying, 'Look, you guys want to train, before you even think about the White Mountains, look at other places.' ''
Places, that is, like Camp Drum, N.Y., and Rangeley, Maine, where there are established MOAs. Places Major Collins -dismisses as being too far away, a waste of both fuel and the pilots' time.
The coalition of New Hampshire groups contends that there might be other mitigating factors which would rule out the use of the White Mountains: the several peregrine falcon nesting areas, for example, might be disrupted by the close presence of A-10s, although Dick Pierce points out that there are successful nesting areas in the anything but remote skyscrapers of New York.
Perhaps more measurable is the effect on the tourist industry, the granite backbone of the economy in the mountains. ''
It's not what they come here for,'' says Dick Hamilton, who heads a group of business people called White Mountain Attractions from a visitors' information center in North Woodstock. ''They come here because of the scenery and the greenery and the solitude,'' and seeing ''an A-10 coming in over the treetops and then going straight up damages the experience.''
The White Mountain Environment Committee would like to see the flights restricted to the winter months, with a -carefully specified maximum number of flights, and with the assurance that only A-10s would use the airspace, to keep out noisier aircraft. Aviation people in the state would like to see the visual-flight-rule minimums made larger, and a better system set up of notifying civilian pilots that the military will be flying. After marking out on a map the heavily used tourist areas, the sensitive natural areas, and the designated Wilderness Areas, Bofinger points out, ''there isn't really very much left of the White Mountains to do military maneuvers in. Certainly in the summer. . . . What it does show is that there are areas of the White Mountains where these flights conceivably could take place if they had to during the snow cover season.''
Whether the Air Force finds this too restrictive remains to be seen, but whatever compromise is worked out between the state and the Air Force, there will most likely be low-level training in the White Mountains, MOA or not.
''I don't think there is any way the state of New Hampshire or anyone else can turn the airspace down,'' says Major Collins. ''Basically, the state of New Hampshire has no control whatever over the airspace over their state, (any more than) any other state. . . . That's purely an FAA thing.''
Even without the MOA, he continues, the A-10s can fly down low. And, he adds, the state might be better off with the MOA, because at least then there is a measure of control as to who goes into the area. If violations occur, they can more easily be traced.
The A-10s at the Connecticut Air National Guard headquarters at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks sit on their haunches in a double line, tethered by ladders, with blinders on their cockpits. Major Collins's office is up a fire escape-like ladder over the hangar, where several more A-10s sulk about disemboweled. The planes of his unit - the Flying Yankees - are emblazoned with two Air Force Outstanding Unit insignia and the unit's logo, a pilgrim running at full tilt. They are hulks of camouflage green, Warthogs for sure, their almost graceful line disfigured by the twin lumps of engines atop the wings.
Major Collins, a 14-year veteran of service, has been flying A-10s for two years, having flown F-100s for almost 10 years. How does he like them?''
You get used to it.'' He laments the plane's slowness and the time it takes to get anywhere. ''It's not your normal fighter pilot's image of what he would be wailing around in.''
But, he adds, the airplane doesn't need speed to do what it was designed to do: give effective close air support.
To us in his windowless office, the airport noise is distant. But out on the field, it alternately overwhelms with its presence and stuns with its absence. The comparative silence after a commercial jet lumbers in or out seems to humble the scream of other idling engines. The scrubby grass and trees push up against the runways, defying their presence. Lt. Jim Kelley is patiently readying an A- 10 for a brief journey overhead.
There is nothing luxurious about these planes, except perhaps their $4 million price tag. They're all meat and potatoes, from the indecipherable gaggle of levers, dials, and gauges to the faint gray and blue flight maps neatly tucked away behind the seat. Slipping into the cockpit is like slipping into a kayak, so snug is the fit.
Major Collins's pride in his planes and his unit leaks out around the edges as he almost grudgingly explains the Outstanding Unit Award, finally acknowledging that yes, it is somewhat unusual for a unit to have won it twice in seven or eight years. He seems more comfortable talking about the ''triple redundancies'' in the A-10, all the backup systems that he can call on, and the armor bathtub that surrounds the cockpit to protect the pilot.
The whine from the A-10 engines cuts through the screeching of the commercial jets as Lieutenant Kelley waits for takeoff. The whine is most audible from the front of the airplane, because of the way the engines are mounted. But once in the air, the plane is comparatively quiet, ''one of the quietest airborne,'' says Lt. Col. James Brown, the Air Force representative to the region that includes New Hampshire.
When Lieutenant Kelley passes overhead at about 300 feet some minutes later, the sound is surprisingly muted, compared with what else is happening around the field. From start to finish, he is audible for less than 20 seconds, less intense than a tractor-trailer on a highway. When he is a mile away, he is as quiet as a glider.
But that's at Bradley International Airport, 10 miles as the crow flies from Hartford. The people in New Hampshire talk about the ''startle effect,'' when a hiker is crouched by a stream deep in the woods trying to get a drink without taking a swim and an A-10 pops over the ridge.
''You've just conquered Mt. Adams or Mt. Jefferson or something like that, and obviously to have a plane buzz 100 feet overhead on something like a bombing mission would take away from the recreational experience,'' says Paul Bofinger, gazing out his office window at a sunflower on the edge of the woods. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has its headquarters in a brand-new, energy-self-sufficient building in Concord, N.H., and his office is in a back corner, slightly muggy on this very muggy day, because he forgot to pull down his heavy insulating window quilt to keep out the morning sun.
One suspects that he'd rather be muggy than not be able to see the trees. A forester with a tree farm of 17 acres, he says he never gets tired of looking at trees.
''I could go in the woods and look at trees all the time. I go drive up and down the highway. . . . I just drive up and down the road looking at trees, and I can drive for hours and hours and not get bored.''
Bofinger has heard the A-10s also, at another demonstration in Concord, and says he was impressed with the noise level.
''I told them it's not as noisy as I thought it might be. Nevertheless, it's noisy enough. If I had a home up there or if I were hiking in the mountains, or if I were a peregrine falcon, I don't think I'd like to get buzzed within 100 feet.''
Everyone talks about getting buzzed at 100 feet, despite the 500-foot minimum around people. That's because everyone claims to have seen, or claims to know someone who has seen, an A-10 down lower than it was supposed to be.
Dorothy O'Brien, a selectman in Twin Mountain, remembers the day her secretary screamed, ''He's going to crash.'' She looked up in time to see an A- 10 level with her second-story window in the town building. He ''wasn't any more than 40 feet above the ground,'' she says, because she ''was looking straight out at them.''
Dorothy's husband Joe manages the airport at Twin Mountain, a town of 400 on the border of the national forest just northeast of Franconia Notch. He has encountered the A-10s many times in his Cherokee 6.
''You don't see them till suddenly you see them,'' he says. He talks of the pilots cutting through his airport traffic (''rather stupid''), or over the town. For his close encounters he blames the pilots cutting up, playing ''fun and games when they feel like it.''
''There's all kinds of room up there,'' he points out. ''If they could police their own activity, their problems would be solved.''
''A number of them did pop up into the traffic pattern of several airports,'' admits William Leber of the state Aeronautics Commission. He'd like to keep the A-10s at least three miles away from airports.
Dorothy O'Brien now makes it a point to file a complaint whenever she spots what she thinks is a violation. But nobody seems to know how many complaints have been filed. The best estimate comes from Joseph Ferruci at the FAA's General Aviation District Office in Portland, Maine.
He says they've had ''quite a few'' complaints coming from the White Mountains area, about ''20 in the last few months.'' Of these, he estimates that eight turned out to be actual instances of noncompliance with FAA regulations on noise, low altitude, and high speed.
Dick Hamilton tells of the time last April when he was talking on the phone with Major Collins, complaining about the A-10s coming in too close to people:
''As he was saying to me that they don't fly over populated areas, I looked out my window and saw two A-10s flying by at 400-500 feet. I put the phone out the window and said, 'These are two of your A-10s that don't fly over populated areas.' ''
North Woodstock's 600 citizens do not a metropolis make, by any standards. But that's why they live there.
''We came here to look at the mountains in silence,'' says Stuart Machlin, who lives up the road in Franconia. ''The only arguement that might convince them is that it is bad for the tourist industry and tax dollars. They may confine themselves to the north where the tourist does not go so often, or out of season, but that will be twice as noisy for us.''