From spring 2001 to late summer 2003, our family lived in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., adjacent to the monstrous Eglin Air Force Base and its subsidiary, Hurlburt Field.
Eglin, covering 724 square miles, was home to F-15s and F-16s at its main airfield, while nearby Hurlburt — housing Air Force Special Operations — had the big, rumbling C-130 transports, helicopters and more recently the CV-22 Ospreys. Besides being an Air Force test facility, Eglin also included an Army Ranger training camp.
If you're a resident of northwest Florida, you know the military. You also can expect, on any given day, an unscheduled air show with various aircraft coming and going. We get a sampling here in Colorado Springs around Air Force's home football games, with practice flyovers on Friday and the real thing on Saturday, as we'll see the next few days with Air Force playing Navy.
It could be loud and obtrusive, but it was part of life around Eglin, and that presence became more meaningful after Sept. 11. My wife and I will never forget one night, about 10 days after the attacks, when a massive convoy of planes left for the Middle East. Everyone knew Special Ops already had people on the ground in Afghanistan. But that departure process, with fighters circling the area for support, signaled the war on terror was in full swing.
Nine years later, those memories have returned as we hear of opposition to Air Force training flights by C-130s and Ospreys out of New Mexico, but covering much of southern Colorado. There's similar concern for the Army perhaps adding a combat aviation brigade at Fort Carson.
What the Air Force wants isn't like those impromptu air shows in Florida, tied to training flights over the Gulf of Mexico. These aircraft now, including nearly 700 planned missions in a 12-month period, would fly as low as 200 feet, more often around 500 feet (still not high). They would stay away from larger cities, but their routes might take them over ranches, farms and small towns, possibly affecting cattle operations and wildlife.
After hearing this, we called the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, which has taken no position — probably because Air Force training out of New Mexico would bring no economic impact here.
On the other hand, an aviation brigade at Fort Carson, with 120 military helicopters doing most of their training over Piñon Canyon, would have an impact. And sure enough, the chamber (which also aggressively supports the possible expansion of Piñon Canyon) likes that idea a lot.
The chamber obviously sees these proposals as distinctly different. But skeptics fully believe the Army's proposals and the Air Force's low-altitude training plans are part of a larger scheme to bolster our military presence.
I don't think so. Call me naïve, but after checking the fine print, I don't see a major problem with those Air Force training flights. Three missions a day on average, somewhere between Albuquerque and Aspen, and no more than one aircraft a day flying over any given location? That doesn't sound disruptive. Most flights also would happen at night, avoiding wilderness areas.
Yes, there should be more discussion about that combat aviation brigade. When the naysayers suggest this is an end run by the Army to make a better case for expansion, they're probably on target. But let's not be paranoid about a secret military alliance crafting a long-term strategy for Colorado Springs.
We haven't heard a new term in the military lexicon: joint base. Out of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process (BRAC), multiple military operations have combined in about a dozen locales. One that could serve as an example here is Joint Base Lewis-McChord (Army and Air Force) near Tacoma, Wash., also pushing for a combat aviation brigade. And in Texas, Fort Sam Houston (Army) and Lackland AFB have merged management at Lackland.
When the day comes that we start hearing about turning Fort Carson and Peterson AFB into Joint Base Carson-Peterson, we'll know something's up.
But we're not there — yet.