Friday, May 30, 2014

U.S. Air Force Academy revamps flight programs to address neighbors' concerns over noise, safety

The U.S. Air Force Academy is trying to quiet down its flying programs this summer to appease neighbors who have demanded changes.

At a meeting at Discovery Canyon Campus, east of the school, leaders on Thursday outlined plans to fly higher and reopen an alternate airfield outside Ellicott to reduce the number of planes flying over northeastern Colorado Springs.

Trouble over noise from cadet flight training started last summer when the school's flight programs were at their loudest and boiled over at a meeting last fall.

"We heard you loud and clear last November, and we have looked at as many options as we could look at," said Col. Joseph Rizzuto, who commands the 306th Flying Training Group at the academy.

Academy flight programs total 25,000 sorties per year. Last summer, all of them were concentrated on the 18,500-acre campus and surrounding neighborhoods after Pentagon budget cuts forced the academy to close its alternate airfield.

And, driven by Federal Aviation Administration concerns, the academy compressed its take-off and landing patterns last year, leaving as many as 14 single-engine trainers at a time droning over rooftops.

Almost half of academy flights happen during the nine weeks of summer, when cadets are out of class and free to fly, with single engine aircraft flying 10 hours per day.

"Summer specifically causes problems, so we took a look at options," Rizzuto said.

Rizzuto said the Pentagon and Congress came up with cash to reopen "Bullseye", the alternate field, which will put about a third of the flights over sparsely populated farmland.

Another change will put cadet flight noise over Interstate 25, rather than houses.

Rizzuto said the plan would have trainer planes climbing north over I-25 before turning east and reducing engine power at Baptist Road.

The academy has limited options for routing flights in the well-traveled flight paths of the Front Range. The new routing, Rizzuto said, will allow cadets to fly without interfering with commercial routes into Denver and Colorado Springs or military traffic from Peterson and Buckley Air Force bases and Fort Carson.

Academy spokesman David Cannon showed an audience of about 75 people a video of the new flight path, complete with sound that he said was recorded with a directional microphone. The academy plane was quieter than a truck, also recorded.

Neighbors, though, remained skeptical.

Becky Armstrong, who lives under the academy's flight path, said she's worried about safety because the planes are so low.

"The airplanes, when they come over the hill where we live, are still coming 500 feet over homes," she said.

Rizzuto sakid the academy will carefully watch the altitude of flights, with a goal of putting planes 800 feet or more over homes.

Airplanes have flown from the academy since the 1960s. About 3,000 cadets per year participate in parachuting, glider flights or the powered flight familiarization program. Cadets aren't trained to fly Air Force jets, but are given familiarization that academy leaders say makes them ready for training after they graduate.

Many neighbors expressed frustration, saying the academy doesn't respond to complaints, and the noise ruins neighborhoods.

"There are still a lot of questions that need to be addressed," Armstrong said. "I hope they open a partnership to work with neighbors to refine this."

Some, though, say they like the noise.

Retired Marine Maj. Gary Hall, who lives near the academy, said it's the sound of freedom.

"Personally I don't understand how you can get up in the morning and look yourselves in the face," he said to the complaining neighbors.

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