By Ryan Lengerich: CNJ staff writer
Area ranchers’ dissent toward the Air Force’s proposed air-space expansion surrounding Cannon Air Force Base was countered by support from Clovis residents’ at a town hall meeting Friday evening.
About 100 people attended the final of four public forums to discuss concerns or voice support about a proposal to expand military airspace around Cannon from 2,600 to 3,300 square miles. The proposal would also allow pilots to fly at supersonic speeds at approximately 6,000 feet above ground, roughly 20,000 feet lower than current airspace allows.
Eight people addressed the military judge present to mediate the forum. Public comments will appear on the New Mexico Training Range Initiative’s final report.
Clovis City Manager Joe Thomas publicly supported the plan.
“I believe the positives far outweigh the negative impacts,” Thomas said.
The positives, according to the Air Force, include the necessary space to perform realistic operational training for a full range of F-16 missions, something officials say is impossible under current conditions.
Col. Tip Wight of Cannon calls current conditions a “hodgepodge of airspace and altitude restrictions.”
Negative impacts include an increase in sonic booms from an average of one every five days to two every three days.
“We are being impacted more than is being let on,” said A.S. Elliott, a rancher who added he has filed nine damage claims with the Air Force in as many years. Elliott, one of the initiative’s most outspoken critics, also spoke at Wednesday’s meeting in Fort Sumner and at meetings last year.
Terry Moberly, a Clovis businessman, said the city has had a good relationship with Cannon.
“It is a small sacrifice we make so that our pilots will be better trained,” Moberly said.
Clovis resident Carl Melinat said he has a son-in-law in the Air Force.
“If we are going to have a good defense we need to have a good offense and this is the way to get it,” Melinat said.
But sonic booms and low flying jets are not the only concerns.
Steve Uslan, a former president of the New Mexico Pilots Association, said adding a new strip of airspace in Lincoln County northwest of Roswell will hinder commercial and personal flights from the Odessa, Texas, area to Albuquerque.
According to the Air Force, the expanded Pecos complex will be used about twice each month for large-force exercises.
Uslan said commercial flights may be forced to be re-routed through Clovis while personal aircrafts will encounter added danger due to a lack of communication capabilities in the area.
“(The Air Force) speak(s) in terms of a perfect world, this is not a perfect world,” said Uslan, who added that more airspace is an attempt to keep Cannon from falling victim to this year’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) list.
“That is what this is all about,” he said. “This has nothing to do with training or anything else, this is about a need that is being created to keep Cannon open.”
A final environmental impact statement is scheduled to be completed by Sept. 5.
Cannon officials hope the initiative is approved by the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration by the fall of this year.