Air Force flyovers: Special Ops to buzz southwest Colorado?

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Last month, under pressure from Representative Scott Tipton and ranchers in the Pinon Canyon area, Air Force officials backed off a plan to conduct intensive low-altitude training flights over southeast Colorado. But the recently unveiled boundaries for the low, low flights probably won't cause much joy in Durango, Montrose, Grand Junction or Aspen.

A draft environmental assessment proposes a training fly zone for the 27th Special Operations Wing that stretches from Cannon Air Force Base in eastern New Mexico across most of the northern part of that state, then jogs across the southwestern quarter of Colorado. For a large-scale map of the zone, which stretches from Cortez to Grand Junction to Aspen, then back through the heart of the San Luis Valley to the New Mexico border, click here.

The Air Force wants to run three missions a night over the area, at altitudes generally less than 1,000 feet, to give its Special Ops crews more training over challenging mountainous terrain, contending that current flyover corridors are too flat for that purpose. Some critics of the proposal describe it as part of a push for a Joint Forces Combat Training Area that will eventually encompass much of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

The 224-page Air Force environmental assessment sees few problems with the proposed flyovers, since specific routes wouldn't be repeated more than three times a month. The analysis looks at everything from the number of anticipated bird strikes to the number of times people might be expected to be awakened in the middle of the night by a 98-decibel roar from a C-130 soaring 500 feet above their roof -- and finds all the tradeoffs acceptable.

But will Colorado residents living in the flyover area agree? A series of public meetings are scheduled for Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Montrose and elsewhere over the next few weeks (go here for a full schedule of times and locations). Before the flyboys can begin their intensive buzzing of southwest Colorado, they first have to get some 90-decibel feedback from the locals.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Pinon Canyon controversy: Tim Wirth blasts 'bankrupt' defense policy."

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