March 19, 2014 News » Cover Story

Hard landings 

Army looks for other options as Forest Service scales back helicopter zones

Within six months, Fort Carson hopes to have its new Combat Aviation Brigade on base and in full swing, with about 117 helicopters executing landings and takeoffs in the Pike and San Isabel national forests. But while the community has largely embraced the new unit's arrival, a few wonder if allowing approximately 350 pilots to fly hundreds of missions in tinder-dry forests is a good idea.

The U.S. Forest Service says no wildland fires have been ignited by sparks from a helicopter crash. But tell that to Lance Williams, who lives just south of Manitou Springs in Crystal Park, a hamlet at 9,000 feet. Williams considers the "more or less constant" whop-whop-whop of helicopters overhead a warning of impending catastrophe.

"The fire threat makes training in this area very questionable," he says. Conditions have changed dramatically in the 36 years since the Army obtained its permit to land helicopters amid the forests: The population has nearly tripled, more homes lie close to the forests, and the forests themselves have been desiccated by drought.

In addition to the fire threat, the Forest Service also is worried about the impact of expanded helicopter training on wildlife and other forest users, and has taken steps to discourage Fort Carson from relying too heavily on the forests.

Carson has generally followed the Forest Service's wishes, but the Army asserts in documents that High Altitude Mountain Environmental Training (HAMET) is crucial to preventing crashes in places such as Afghanistan.

Though the forests remain its preferred training site, the Army has applied for a long-term lease of Bureau of Land Management land southwest of Colorado Springs, extending to north of Cañon City. That application will kick off a National Environmental Policy Act process that will include public comment and analyze the impact of takeoffs and landings from 43 sites.

"It is possible that landing zones will be eliminated, moved, or otherwise modified based on resource conflicts," says Kyle Sullivan, BLM spokesman in the Front Range District office in Cañon City.

Essential training

For years, pilots from Fort Carson flew helicopters over the forests. But there weren't many flights, and there weren't as many homes nearby.

Today, the military trains at high altitude to gain an edge over its enemies, including combatants who hide in the Afghan mountains. Time magazine reported in 2009 that attacks by Taliban forces along Afghanistan's few roads make many of the U.S. positions in that country reachable only by helicopter. A senior Army logistics officer told the magazine, "We're resupplying between 30% and 40% of our forward operating bases by air because we just can't get to them on the ground."

High-altitude helicopter flights require special training, because they're unstable by nature and because helicopters perform dramatically differently at heights of 9,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level, where the air is thinner.

One person who knows all about that is Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Niles, tactical operations officer for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson. He briefs visiting units, helps design their training plans, and decides which landing zones are used.

"When you get to one of these remote landing zones," he says in an interview, "there's trees surrounding it, so you have to plan an approach down ... based on the winds, based on the weather, the temperature, what we call 'density altitude' that affects the performance of the aircraft, and we do that in a day iteration and a night iteration so they get proficient in both."

Asked why there's a push for high-altitude training even as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, Niles says, "I can't speak for the U.S. Army. We still need to keep certain aviation brigades trained in mountainous training."

The Army stated in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for locating a Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Carson that a new brigade was needed due to the "imbalance between mission requirements and available aviation forces," which was forcing aviation units to deploy too often, "negatively impacting training, readiness, and Soldier and Family Quality of Life."

In addition, high-altitude training is necessary to "reduce the large number of helicopter accidents and resulting casualties attributed to crews lacking the skills necessary to safely operate at high altitude in mountainous environments," Fort Carson states in its BLM application.

According to USA Today, 29 helicopters crashed in Afghanistan from January 2009 through mid-September 2011, and Stars and Stripes reported in December 2013 that, based on civil aviation safety data and published reports on military crashes, at least 180 aircraft crashed or were destroyed since the Afghanistan war began, the majority due to accidents.

The Army's Combat Readiness/Safety Center reports that in the last decade, 21 helicopters have crashed in Afghanistan where the crew was operating at 5,000 feet above sea level or higher. Human error was blamed for 17 of those crashes, which killed 23 people, 17 of them Army soldiers. Ten of those soldier deaths occurred in May 2006 in a single CH-47D, a type of aircraft that trains here.

The crashes also caused $310.8 million in damage, the Readiness/Safety Center reports.

The year with the most crashes was 2010, the same year that high-altitude training in the forests picked up when units from other posts started visiting Colorado Springs. Typically, the units come in task forces of 30 aircraft, train for two to three weeks, and then leave. They usually bring two to four task forces at a time. Every pilot has to successfully perform a landing and a takeoff during the day and at night, Niles says.

From April 2011 to May 2013, a total of about 540 helicopters came from Fort Bragg, N.C.; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Drum, N.Y., and Fort Riley, Kan. They made a combined 14,900 landings, about a third over BLM land between 2011 and 2012. The BLM's Kyle Sullivan describes the land in an email as "isolated southern Rocky Mountain-type grasslands, mostly in the montane/foothills."

Two-thirds, or about 10,000 flights, were made over Forest Service land, which has landing zones in areas of alpine tundra, rock scree, meadow, grass with few trees, and meadow surrounded by closed forest and timber.

Fort Carson turned to BLM land because the Forest Service over the years asked the Army not to use many landing zones.

Jeff Hovermale, with the Pikes Peak Ranger District, doesn't know when the Forest Service omitted those zones but says one was marked off-limits in order to protect Mexican Spotted Owl critical habitat.

Hovermale couldn't say what environmental analysis the Forest Service conducted when the Army's permit, renewable every 10 years, was renewed in 1988 and 1998. But in 2008, the Forest Service restricted helicopter refueling operations within the forest by requiring wheeled vehicles to use existing forest roads, Hovermale says, and deploy spill containment systems, such as bladders, for every refueling operation. He notes that only three sites with road access were designated for refueling. Because there were other options for refueling, including an airport at Leadville, the Forest Service asked that refueling in the forest be stopped, and Carson did so.

"It's just a risk," Hovermale says.

On Aug. 1, the Forest Service asked Fort Carson to stop using four more landing zones pending an environmental study of the Bear Creek Watershed, where the greenback cutthroat trout, a threatened subspecies, was recently discovered. Carson has obliged.

That means Carson is left with 12 landing zones out of the original 22.

Like family hiking

In 2010 Fort Carson began using BLM land under a "casual use" agreement that gave access to landing zones in Park, Teller and Fremont counties, southwest of Colorado Springs. The BLM defines casual use as having "no impact on the environment or on other public land users," and likens it to "a family hiking and camping, hunting, fishing, rockhounding, etc."

Visiting brigades made roughly 4,900 landings on the BLM land in 2011 and 2012.

In a May 2013 letter renewing "casual use" permission, the BLM noted that Congress has determined national security interests to be no more important than other BLM land management responsibilities, and put Fort Carson on notice that future helicopter training would need more formal approval, not just a "casual use" permit.

The letter also stated that future requests would require 120 days' notice and imposed three pages of restrictions. Those included requiring advance notification of every mission so that BLM personnel can monitor activities for use in an Environmental Assessment, and restricting use of certain landing zones during weekends in the summer and fall and on holidays.

The Army also was barred from using flares; pilots were warned to avoid landing zones if wildlife was present; and the military was on the hook for any cost, loss or damage associated with use of the land. The BLM further warned Carson that pilots may encounter hunters with firearms without much notice during hunting season.

The letter ends by notifying the Army that its "repetitive" use may not constitute "casual use," and that future requests will not only require a separate BLM review but also "may require" a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.

No visiting brigades used the BLM land in 2013. Rather, they used the higher-altitude Pike and San Isabel landing zones, which Carson says are preferred by pilots for training. Nevertheless, in September, the Army applied for a 30-year right-of-way permit, a type of lease, for 43 landing zones covering about 235 acres of BLM property.

Sullivan, with the BLM, says the NEPA process, which will begin soon, will determine if the Army's use of the land is compatible with the activities of hikers, hunters, grazing cattle and wildlife.

Fear of fire

On a hot day, Williams sits down at a coffee shop at 31st Street and Colorado Avenue to explain his concern about military helicopters in the forests. Pointing south, he picks out Cameron's Cone and Mount Arthur, which sit next to Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs and host several landing zones.

"What is their accident rate up there?" he wonders. "We have a noise concern, of course. But with the whole fire thing, I would say the main concern is from the fire standpoint. We know they crash, and we know our forests are tinder boxes. They need to stop training at all on this massif."

The Forest Service's Hovermale says two helicopters have crashed in the Pike and San Isabel — one on Sept. 24, 2002, at the Three-Bells landing zone, which is less than two miles west of Bear Creek Regional Park, and on June 30, 2010, on the Almagre landing zone, which is just over four miles west of Helen Hunt Falls, in Cheyenne Cañon. Neither ignited a fire. Still, Williams notes that in an Army report on the 2010 crash, an investigator lays blame on the training itself, saying the crash occurred partly because of the training's "emphasis on performing unrealistic, non-mission-focused tasks for reconnaissance and attack aircraft."

In a written response, the post said, "Fort Carson abides by a rigorous set of standards for HAMET and home station flights, and educates all visiting units on these standards prior to their training at Fort Carson. Fort Carson instructs the visiting units on where the landing zones are and other fly-friendly policies. Deviating from the landing zones is not allowed. Fort Carson also works closely with the other military entities that use [Forest Service] and BLM landing zones to ensure everyone is current on which landing zones are in use."

The crash report goes on to question the HAMET program, saying there are few missions in Afghanistan that would require helicopters to land on pinnacles and ridgelines at high altitude, as the training requires, and that "high altitude combat maneuvering for attack aircraft can be simulated anywhere the aircraft can climb to altitude."

So Williams wants to know: Why run the risk?

One instance of bad luck or pilot error could bring catastrophe, he says, having witnessed the forest's vulnerability first-hand in 2012 as he stood atop one of the peaks near Manitou.

"I noticed [the wind] was coming over my shoulders, and the wind was steady that day," he says, recalling the start of the Waldo Canyon Fire in June 2012 that destroyed 347 homes and killed two people in a northwest Colorado Springs neighborhood.

Manitou Springs was evacuated, and has seen devastating flood damage in the aftermath.

Williams contacted U.S. Sen. Mark Udall's office last June with his worries.

"We referred his concerns to Fort Carson," Udall spokesman Mike Saccone writes via email, "and asked them to be in touch with Mr. Williams."

Says Williams, "I have been working with Fort Carson public affairs for over a year. I tried for a year to show them my concerns. They wouldn't have it. They're not interested in changing policy."

In an email, Carson officials tell the Indy the post received seven noise complaints from Williams from April 2012 to April 2013 and responded each time, though they don't say how the post responded.

"Fort Carson continues to instruct our pilots and visiting pilots to avoid residential areas and abide by other installation fly-friendly policies," all in accord with Army and Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the email says.

Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder, who lives in Crystal Hills, on the town's east side, says while mitigation measures, such as removing vegetation to create defensible space, have been implemented on half to two-thirds of Manitou's southern boundary, "If we got a windy day, who knows if those lines would hold up."

"It's probably the number-one concern we have still," he adds. "All the way from Cheyenne Mountain to Pikes Peak would be a real concern for us. Believe me, our greatest threat is a fire that would start south of here and race right through Manitou."

The Army addresses those and other fire concerns in its response to questions raised by residents during the Environmental Impact Statement process, saying the post tries "to minimize the possibility of igniting wildfires, whatever the source of ignition, and maximize the ability to contain them when they do start."

Snyder notes that when residents, including himself, complained that the helicopters were flying so low that they brushed treetops, the flight pattern was changed.

Look elsewhere

Several who commented during the 2010-11 environmental study before locating the Combat Air Brigade at Fort Carson mentioned wildfire as a concern.

The Forest Service, too, has concerns about fire and overuse of the Pike and San Isabel forests by military aircraft. Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr wrote a letter to the Pentagon in December 2010 urging that the environmental study dig further into the impact of the brigade on the forest system.

In response, the Army said its use of the forests wouldn't change due to the brigade. Yet in its application for access to BLM land, it wrote that "limiting HAMET activities to the Forest Service LZs [landing zones] could result in a higher rate of use than is desired by the Army, the Forest Service, and the public." (Emphasis added.)

A big increase in numbers of helicopters using the forests regularly could constitute "a change in condition and that would require a whole new analysis," the Forest Service's Hovermale says.

He won't say if the Forest Service is contemplating closing more landing zones, but it is empowered to amend the permit if conditions change.

For now, the Forest Service is encouraging Fort Carson to find other places in the forest that have less impact on other forest users.

"If they [military] want to continue a level of use of the landing zones on national forest, they need to identify alternative landing zones away from the urban interface areas," Hovermale says, "and identify areas that are compatible, where there are no roads and trails."

When the permit comes up for renewal in 2018, Hovermale says, the agency is likely to conduct an environmental assessment to determine compatibility.

Carson's public affairs office says in an email response to questions that the impact of the CAB will be "less intense" than that of visiting units, which have limited time to accomplish the training.

The post adds that no HAMET rotations are scheduled "at this time."


Working together

— Pam Zubeck

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