Top Guns Rattle Rural Hamlets
Military proposals to expand high-speed training flight and lower their altitudes stir protests in rural US communities
BELLAFONTE, PA. — Like many who live in the quiet hamlets and secluded bends of the Susquehanna River Valley, Robert Fisher came to central Pennsylvania to get away from it all.
''It's extremely quiet here,'' says Mr. Fisher, a sculptor whose property lies on the banks of the Susquehanna where it meanders below 1,200-foot, tree-lined cliffs. ''You can hear gunshots echoing in the next valley and trains eight miles away.''
But the solitude and calm that attract Fisher - as well as thousands of hunters, tourists, and campers to the region each year - also make this valley prime real estate for military maneuvers.
Because military training is loud and dangerous, it's done where people are few and far between. That's one reason the United States Air National Guard picked this valley, along with 40 other areas around the country, to expand, modify, or create special flight areas for military jets.
The largest of the proposals involves Pennsylvania. Now awaiting final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the plan would also expand the military's labyrinth of aerial combat zones over New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
Under federal aviation rules, jets flying faster than 285 m.p.h. at low altitudes must navigate inside special flight zones. As the Air Guard upgrades to faster F-16 fighter jets - which cruise upwards of 600 m.p.h. - pilots need larger training areas in which to maneuver, military officials say.
But because a big part of the training will involve flying as low as 300 feet over the ground (a tactic used to evade enemy radar), the proposals are extremely controversial in rural areas.
''They plan to fly thousands of flights annually down this valley at tree-top level, which would destroy this valley for everyone who lives here,'' says Fisher, whose opposition is echoed by state tourism groups, environmental agencies, real estate boards, and the State Assembly.
Military spokesmen counter that their pilots are instructed not to fly over ''noise sensitive'' areas such as towns or schools. Moreover, they say the added training room is a critical part of preparing pilots for modern combat.
''When you're down at 100 or 200 feet doing 580 knots into a target, about 60 percent of your attention is taken just flying the aircraft safely,'' says Lt. Col. Bob Rose, an F-16 flight instructor for the Air National Guard's 174th Fighter Wing in Syracuse, N.Y. ''That makes navigating, defending yourself, and getting your weapons set up a lot more intensive. That's why we need air space where we can train close to the ground.''
But these ground-hugging tactics have many rural residents up in arms. At issue is a phenomenon called the ''startle effect'' - panic induced when a jet booms unexpectedly overhead at 120 decibels (roughly equal to the loudest rock concert ever recorded).
''It's like being in a car crash,'' says Dan Kellaher, who lives under a military flight route in upstate New York. ''Especially in hilly terrain where the planes come over the hill real fast and you don't hear them in the distance. Sheep just go crazy. We've had cows go through barbed-wire fences.''
The Air Guard has occasionally reimbursed farmers for injuries caused to livestock after low-flying jets spooked animals into a stampede - a worrisome possibility, according to those whose livelihood depends on the health of their herds.
This concern is one reason several dozen rural townships in southwestern Wisconsin have joined one of the country's largest and most traditional Amish communities in condemning a planned, low-altitude flight path for fighter jets and bombers over the state's breadbasket.
Elders of the area's 5,000-member Amish settlement broke a long-standing taboo against involvement in outside affairs to write a 15-page letter (hand-scripted with a quill-tipped pen) to Guard officials: ''The low-flying jets would not only disrupt our peaceful worship, but also infringe our Christian pacifist beliefs as visual symbols of war rending the heavens overhead,'' the elders wrote. They added that the startle effect would endanger Amish children, who begin driving horse-drawn buggies and working around horses at an early age.
Although military requests for more training room are nothing new, they are drawing increasing fire from rural residents who say they expected a break from military training, not an increase, after the Berlin Wall's collapse.
In response, defense planners argue that as bases close at home and abroad, the remaining installations may need larger areas in which to train larger troop masses. Similarly, officials of the Air National Guard say training ranges closer to home base allow pilots to spend more time training and less time commuting. ''Our fuel budgets have gone down, but our training requirements remain the same,'' says Air Guard spokesman Steve Wolf.
But the military's critics say those training levels are excessive and need to be brought in line with the post-Soviet world. ''Here we are reducing the force structure, the number of airplanes and pilots, and the services are saying, 'We need more air space, more targets, more bombing ranges,''' says Eugene Carroll, a retired Navy admiral who directs the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. ''It just doesn't make sense.''
Now a national coalition of rural groups is hoping to pressure lawmakers to require the Pentagon to do two things: thoroughly tally its land and air-space holdings before asking for more and make more efficient use of its existing training assets. (The Pentagon can now fly low altitude missions over nearly half the US, critics contend.)
National security aside, there are public safety issues to consider. Upstate New York resident David Duff supports giving military pilots more room because he says it will ease air traffic over his neck of the woods.
''We've got seaplanes taking off from a lot of these Adirondack lakes,'' Mr. Duff says. ''Joe Blow's pokin' through in his Cessna on his way to Ottawa. We need to alleviate some of the congestion and potential danger by giving more room to military planes.''
But in Pennsylvania, where some of that room would be found, hang-gliding groups say the Guard's plan, if approved, would create a dangerous zone at Hyner View, one of the Northeast's most popular hang-gliding spots.
''Through swarms of low, slow gliders, the Guard would like to fly small, high-speed fighters in full aerobatic flight,'' says Bob Beck, president of the Blue Ridge Hang Gliding Club. ''Sooner or later, there'll be a midair collision.''
Negotiations between the Air Guard and the hang gliders about how to divvy up skies over Hyner View have stalled, and, despite allegations by Fisher and others that the Guard's environmental studies are flawed, the hang gliders are the only major issue now holding up FAA approval of the National Guard's Northeast proposal.