AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage sent a letter Friday vehemently opposing the proposed low-level flight training in Maine by the Air National Guard.
In the letter to J. Randall Babbitt, the director of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, LePage requests that the Air National Guard cancel plans to expand flight training over western Maine.
LePage had been briefed on the proposal early in his administration, and the ANG made strong arguments for the necessity of the expansion. When he met with constituents, LePage wrote, he heard opposing viewpoints.
“This gave me pause since those opposed were retired Air Force pilots living in the affected area,” he wrote. “They were able to speak knowledgeably and intelligently on the issues.”
LePage left little doubt about where he stands.
“The expansion of the Condor is a want, not a need, of the NGB (National Guard Bureau),” he wrote. “The pilots of the Massachusetts and Vermont Air National Guard are currently qualified to stand ready on Air Sovereignty Alert and while the expansion of the Condor airspace would give pilots more training options, the want of options does not a necessity make.”
He suggested that the issue was being pursued because of political expediency because the area is also the “path of least resistance” compared to the upstate New York airspace.
After testifying before regional and state-level panels, Tom Mauzaka, Air Force Col. (ret), of Strong, said he was pleased with the governor’s action.
“We should be grateful to the governor's staff for closely examining the facts relating to the proposed change to the airspace,” he said on Saturday.
He met with LePage in May and voiced what he said are flaws in the proposal.
“The governor's position is a building block in a long process to stop the National Guard Bureau from manipulating the EIS (environmental impact statement) process to change Maine airspace,” he said. “Many people have worked long and hard to bring out the facts showing the negative impact on Maine.”
"Because airspace management is federally controlled, Maine’s congressional delegation also must actively oppose any change to Condor MOA airspace,” Mauzaka said.
“Congressional staff members are aware of the issue and have helped us throughout the process,” he said. “Our delegation has mandated that the FAA hold formal hearings in Maine.”
In 2006, the Air National Guard asked the FAA to modify two military operation areas (MOAs), Condor 1 and Condor 2, which would drop their training flight allowance from above 7,000 above the ground to 500 feet in restricted training areas. The affected areas stretched from Coos County, N.H., across Oxford, Franklin and into Somerset County, in western Maine.
The Western Maine Matters citizens group organized in 2007, protesting the Guard’s use of what they called outdated, incomplete and false data, to justify their expansion. Those who spoke at public hearings shared concerns about safety for small aircraft, potential harm to property values, and the effect on the tourism economy.
Wilton resident Mike Wells, Air Force Lt. Colonel (ret.) was a squadron commander, F-15 instructor pilot, and flight safety officer, and he has been a strong opponent at hearings.
“Maine was politically more of a soft spot for the Air National Guard, compared with going up against the political machine of the state of New York,” he said. “As a pilot, I would have loved to train in the space above western Maine, but the people who live below me would have been paying a high price.”
Much of the public protest revolved around the Guard’s methods of collecting and presenting data. Wells noted that the ANG report failed to address the drastic increase in mishap rates associated with tactical low-level training, noting that information was misleading and lacked integrity, as no mishap rate data was included for low-altitude tactical maneuvering.
“Contrary to the DEIS (draft environmental impact statement), there is no FAA radar or communications coverage for vast areas of the proposed low MOA, therefore making separation of military and civilian aircraft next to impossible,” he said.
Before takeoff, private pilots can call a toll-free number or check the ANG’s website, but both options fell far short of his personal safety standards, he said.
“The impact statement is merely that, a statement, not a study,” Wells noted in the transcript of one public hearing. “Studies contain relevant, quantifiable, and current data. The DEIS does not.”
The Maine Department of Transportation questioned the impacts of safety, with six civilian airports and more than 43,000 flights annually within the proposed training area.
Former Gov. John Baldacci asked the Guard to reconsider expanding either their Adirondack Airspace Complex near Fort Drum in New York, or the Yankee MOA over New Hampshire. The ANG responded that the Adirondack space was too small and the Yankee MOA was configured for training with different aircraft. Neither would be appropriate training space for fighter jets, according to the Guard.