May 20, 2024

General seeks lowering flight ceiling to 500 feet

FARMINGTON – Fighter pilots from Vermont and Massachusetts need to fly as low as 500 feet over the hills and mountains of western Maine to train to defend the nation’s borders against attacks by small airplanes and cruise missiles, a general said.

Brig. Gen. Leon Rice from the Air National Guard in Massachusetts stated his case during the last public hearing on a proposal to lower the flight ceiling from 2,800 feet to 500 feet over the Condor Military Operation Area that includes Bethel, Rumford, Rangeley and Farmington.

The 3,600-square-mile training area is used by National Guard F-15 pilots from Massachusetts and F-16 pilots from Vermont for maneuvers and mock dogfights.

A small group of residents attending the public hearing Tuesday night in Farmington questioned the necessity for ground-hugging flights. Critics also raised questions about noise, safety and quality of life.

State Rep. Tom Saviello of Wilton joined Gov. John Baldacci in calling for a full environmental impact study before the proposal moves forward. Under the current timetable, the Massachusetts Air National Guard hopes to file the proposal with the FAA next spring.

Rice told residents that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks revealed a weakness in the military’s ability to defend against a low-altitude attack, either by airplane or cruise missile.

The goal, he said, is to provide better training for National Guard pilots from the 104th Fighter Wing in Westfield, Mass., and 158th Fighter Wing in Burlington, Vt., who would be called upon to intercept such threats in the Northeast.

The F-15 fighters, formerly based on Cape Cod as the 102nd Fighter Wing, were the first in the air over New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks.

This isn’t the first time the National Guard sought to expand low-level flight training in Maine. In 1992, the National Guard made a similar request to lower the deck to 300 feet for its training flights. The proposal was rejected.

The latest proposal got off to a bumpy start.

The National Guard agreed to extend the public comment period because residents complained that they were late to learn of the plan last spring. The Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce, for example, learned of the draft proposal only weeks before the original expiration date for public comments.

Guy Griscom of Avon told Rice, “The people here are not against the military but get their dander up when things are being withheld.”

Rice said the military doesn’t need permission from state officials but has sought to include state officials in the discussion.

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