AFTER spending five years and more than $1 million on environmental studies, the United States Air National Guard has withdrawn a controversial plan to expand its network of aerial mock-combat zones over rural areas in the Northeastern United States.
The Air Guard already maintains a network of training areas in which jet fighter pilots can hone their combat skills with high-speed, low-altitude flights. The proposal, rescinded late last month, would have expanded that system by creating new training areas over New York, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. (See Monitor story, Oct. 24, 1995, Page 10: "Top Guns Rattle Rural Hamlets.")
Under federal aviation rules, planes that fly faster than 285 miles per hour at low altitude must stay within special military training areas. Because several Air Guard units in the Northeast had planned to upgrade from slower-moving A-10 jets to much faster F-16 fighters, the Guard had said it needed more elbow room for maneuvers.
But because the upgrade to faster jets has been indefinitely postponed at two bases in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the additional air space may no longer be needed, says Air Guard Maj. Gen. Alan Reid, adding that the Guard will continue to study the matter.
The Air Guard's decision came as a shock to both supporters and opponents of the initiative, which had survived a contentious environmental review and awaited approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees airspace issues.
The proposal was opposed by many rural residents who said the shriek and boom of low-flying, high-speed aircraft would harm wildlife and disrupt country life. In Pennsylvania, a hang-gliding group objected when one of the proposed combat zones was placed over a popular hang-gliding launch site.
Some residents in upstate New York, however, favored the expansion because they thought it would alleviate noise and safety concerns in their backyard by spreading the training over a 13-state region. The Adirondack area of northern New York now houses several large and busy military training areas.
The withdrawal of the Northeast Airspace Initiative, as it was called, is not expected to affect nearly three dozen other planned expansions and modifications to airspace throughout the United States.
The decision came as a shock to supporters and opponents of the initiative, which had survived an environmental review and awaited approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.