By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
An association of pilots fears the mission proposed for Cannon Air Force Base will create hazardous flying conditions.
Spotty radar coverage, fuzzy radio communications and the type of flying proposed by Air Force Special Operations puts pilots of small, private airplanes, business jets, commuter airplanes and crop dusters at risk, according to the United States Pilots Association.
The Air Force Special Operations Command has proposed stationing about 100 aircraft and 5,680 airmen at Cannon by 2010. AFSOC will assume ownership of the base in October.
Pilots in the association believe the Air Force Special Operations practice of flying at night with lights off and what they deem insufficient communications over Cannon airspace is a dangerous coupling, members said.
The Cannon airspace overlies some 15,590 square miles of land in New Mexico and small portions of Colorado and Texas.
“In effect, I’m flying deaf and dumb,” U.S. Pilots Association President Steve Uslan wrote in a letter to an AFSOC official.
The letter, written in October, was released in March as part of the draft environmental impact statement on the AFSOC proposal for Cannon.
The association also worries about unmanned aerial vehicles. The drones are part of the fleet proposed for Cannon, which also includes C-130s, CV-22s and other aircraft.
“The hazards to civilian pilots of operating UAVS in this environment is just too great to be ignored,” Uslan wrote in his letter.
Avoiding Cannon airspace isn’t an option for association members, who said doing so would add hours to their flight times.
To mitigate potential flight hazards, the association wants the Air Force to set up new radio and radar stations in the airspace, Uslan said.
But AFSOC has no plans to set up those stations and believes current safety practices at Cannon are sufficient, according to AFSOC spokesperson Denise Boyd.
AFSOC proposes using see-and-avoid procedures to prevent conflicts with civilian aircraft, according to its draft environmental impact statement. This means aircrew would monitor airspace and maintain safe distances from aircraft and obstacles.
AFSOC pilots generally fly at lower levels than other pilots. During the day, they may encounter civilian pilots, but that possibility is reduced at night, according to the draft environmental statement. AFSOC aircraft also fly more slowly than F-16 fighter jets now at Cannon.
Other procedures currently used to protect pilots would be maintained with the new mission, the statement reads.
An airspace manager at Cannon interfaces between the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force in all airspace matters. All airspace is under FAA management, and Cannon must schedule air training in cooperation with the FAA, the statement reads.
“Potential issues concerning airspace congestion are resolved through scheduling activities with regional Air Traffic Control center,” the statement reads.
FAA spokesperson Roland Herwig said the FAA has passed control of Cannon airspace to the military.
“If there are problems, eventually we could get involved,” he said.
That could happen, for instance, if the Air Force requested them to intervene or the association petitioned them, Herwig said.
AFSOC also addresses UAV safety procedures in its draft environmental impact statement.
Unmanned aerial vehicles can only be flown in restricted airspace, which is airspace designated for ground or flight activities that could be hazardous to non-participating aircraft, the statement reads.
AFSOC would have to obtain a waiver from the FAA to travel between that restricted airspace, which lies above Melrose Bombing Range and Cannon. In addition, they would likely monitor UAV flights visually or send planes to follow the drones when they traversed outside the restricted area, according to the statement.
Some civilian pilots are adamant these safety measures are inadequate.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Worthington has been a pilot for 32 years and regularly flies through Cannon airspace. He’s also a member of the New Mexico Pilots Association.
“Our concerns are pretty much being ignored,” he said.
“There is evidence to indicate the potential (for air conflicts) does exist. It would be nice if the Air Force could do a little bit more,” Worthington said.