Saturday, May 30, 2015

Air Force Academy adjusts flight training to minimize noise, plans meeting with neighbors

As the Air Force Academy heads into its busiest flying season, cadets will wake up earlier and climb higher to keep peace with the school's neighbors.

The academy's Col. Steve Burgh said getting cadets in planes at 6 a.m. will solve some noise issues over northern Colorado Springs neighborhoods and fix a training problem. The academy's T-53 trainer planes don't come with air conditioning, so rising early means a more comfortable flight, he said.

To deal with noise, Burgh will have the cadets start their flights with a corkscrew ascent over the academy's airfield. By starting an hour early, the T-53 trainers won't have to compete with the school's gliders and parachutists for airspace, giving them time to circle their way to altitude before heading east across northern Colorado Springs to rural training areas.

That will put the planes higher when they pass over homes, and with the ascent completed they can fly at a more ear-friendly throttle setting.

"We'll be above 1,000 feet," Burgh said. "We can be at cruise throttle."

The quieter morning flights might not be enough to quiet complaints from neighbors. The school modified its flight patterns in 2013 to avoid conflicts with commercial flights headed to airports in Denver and Colorado Springs. That pushed more planes over neighborhoods from Gleneagle to Briargate.

Neighbor Martha Brewer said the higher morning flights will address some of the neighbor's safety concerns, but flights at lower altitudes during the rest of the day remain a worry.

"All that remains to be seen," she said.

Brewer last year complained to the Federal Aviation Administration about low-flying cadet flights. The agency determined the academy was flying within safety rules.

"As no violation was substantiated, the FAA considers this matter closed," the agency wrote to Brewer.

Burgh said the academy has emphasized safety in its flight programs.

Safety concerns drove the school to pick the T-53, a plane that's equipped with a parachute that can bring the entire craft safely to Earth in an emergency.

The school says it's taking another step to make flights safer by telling instructor pilots to more quickly grab the controls when a student is flying too low over homes.

"You don't want to fly for the student but we don't want them to mess up too much," explained the academy's Lt. Col. Christopher Hawn.

More than 1,900 cadets per year take part in the academy's parachuting, glider and powered flight programs. Hundreds get their first taste of flying in the single-engine T-53, an Air Force variant of the civilian Cirrus SR-20.

The training program isn't a replacement for later pilot training cadets will get after they graduate. Instead it's seen as something that develops leaders and gives all cadets, including those who won't fly for the Air Force, familiarity of what it takes to fly for the service.

Much of that flight training takes place in a narrow two-month window starting in June, when cadets are out of class.

"Summer is our go-to time because the cadets aren't restricted," Hawn said.

A lot of the summer powered flight training takes place in eastern El Paso County, where cadets use the school's Bullseye Auxiliary Airfield to learn how to land and take off and learn maneuvering over wide-open ranch lands.

But flights at the academy's airfield will continue. And just the first takeoffs of the day will use the corkscrew ascent for higher, quieter flights over neighborhoods.

The academy is studying noise from flight programs for a report that should be completed later this year. Also underway is a Pentagon study of land use and encroachment in the Pikes Peak region that will analyze flight program issues at all local bases as a step to improving flight patterns and local zoning laws. That study is in its early stages.

"We are always aware of noise and safety concerns of those who live in neighborhoods near the Academy," Burgh wrote in a message to neighbors sent last week. "We sincerely appreciate the continued cooperation and support of our good neighbors in Colorado Springs and surrounding communities."

The academy will hear from its neighbors at a meeting Thursday arranged by the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance to address flight programs.

"I plan to be there," Brewer said.


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