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Cannon defends sonic booms

An F-16 from Cannon’s 522 Fighter Squadron fires a dummy missile during a training exercise. Courtesy photo.

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — A proposal by Cannon Air Force Base officials to expand military airspace is an effort to prepare pilots for war. It will help increase a pilot’s survivability and, Cannon officials say, allow for training that emulates live conflict.

Cannon Commander Col. Robert Yates spoke in detail last week about the significance of the New Mexico Training Range Initiative — a proposed expansion of military airspace — in defending the country and training pilots for combat.

“The whole package is important,” Yates said. “(The expansion) matches the capability of modern aircraft and modern weapons.”

The proposed expansion would allow pilots to fly lower and faster an additional 15 nautical miles to the west into Lincoln County and to the east toward Portales, its boundary about five miles west of Floyd. Expansions into Fort Sumner to the north and Chaves County to the south are also proposed.

The proposal seeks to expand military airspace to 3,300 square miles from 2,600 square miles. The airspace, known as Pecos Military Operating Area or Pecos MOA, encompasses almost all of De Baca County and portions of Roosevelt, Curry, Chaves, Lincoln and Guadalupe counties.

Changes proposed in the expanded areas include bringing the lowest altitude pilots can fly down to 500 feet above ground; and allowing pilots to fly at supersonic speeds above 10,000 feet instead of 30,000 feet above ground.

While Cannon officials are seeking lower altitude floors, Yates said most of the training will be done between 15,000 to 20,000 feet above ground. This decreases the decibel level of jet noise heard by ranchers who live below the airspace, Yates said.

By contrast, during pre-Desert Storm pilots trained about 90 percent of the time at low altitudes, often only a few hundred feet above ground, which allowed for more frequent and louder jet noise on ranches, Yates said.

Planes traveling at high speeds allow for supersonic booms or shock waves, which in rare circumstances can rattle barns and shatter windows, Cannon officials say. The shock waves are caused when planes break the sound barrier, usually when they react to a threat, either through acceleration or breaking strong in either direction.

For the most part the effects of the booms are minimal since pilots usually boom at medium to high altitudes, giving the shock wave plenty of time to deaden before reaching ground, Yates said.

Yates said about 10 percent of the time, or about 500 to 1,000 times a year, Cannon pilots fly in configurations that allow for sonic shock waves.

Pilots flying at supersonic speeds do so to avoid conflict with enemies.

“We go supersonic not because it’s fun, not because we’re shining our rear ends, but because it enhances our survivability,” Yates said.

Second Lt. Jennifer Geeslin of Cannon Public Affairs said there are other areas of military airspace in New Mexico where Cannon pilots train, but the Pecos MOA is the closest and expansion there is important. She said pilots often burn too much fuel traveling to the other airspace, which cuts down on training time.

“It’s more efficient not only economically but also training wise,” Geeslin said.

As part of the initiative, Cannon officials are also seeking to move a jet interstate north out of the proposed military airspace.

The interstate currently runs in a straight line from Texico to a vortex north of Corona in Torrance County.

The move will force passenger jets north, but will only cause an additional 30 seconds for flight times, Yates said. He said the move is important for safety purposes.

Yates said he has briefed airline officials on the plan, and all but one airline has agreed to the changes.

Cannon officials have spent $1.5 million to fund an environmental impact study on the proposed Training Range Initiative. They hope to present that assessment to Congress for approval in the fall of 2005.

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