Operation Snowbird at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base will be the focus of public meetings—part of an environmental assessment—tentatively scheduled for March.
While base supporters intend to focus on noise and safety issues, critics want the Air Force to consider relocating these military-training flights.
"I'm getting the feeling the environmental assessment study is going to try to justify the existing program," says Robin Gomez, a midtown neighborhood activist who thinks alternative locations for Operation Snowbird should be considered.
Begun at Davis-Monthan (D-M) in 1972 and officially established three years later, Operation Snowbird initially consisted of two-week training sessions during winter months for Air National Guard units from cold climates.
Because of Southern Arizona's desert terrain, another more-recent advantage of the operation, according to the Air National Guard, is that it "supports the war effort by allowing units to 'train to the fight' in an environment similar to the Area of Responsibility (i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan)."
In 1978, an assessment was done on Operation Snowbird's environmental impacts. That same year, a plane from D-M crashed just south of the UA, killing two people.
Following the crash, the Air Force looked at all D-M flights. One change it considered exploring was "reduc(ing) the Air National Guard activity at Davis-Monthan."
That wasn't done.
According to a report prepared last year by consulting firm Wyle, between 13 and 15 Air National Guard units participated in Operation Snowbird annually during its first two decades. By 1995, most of the flights were F-16s, and planning was underway for expanded facilities at D-M to accommodate Operation Snowbird. But those plans, the Wyle report states, did not include "additional aircraft or flying hours."
Things then began to change substantially. By 2000, Operation Snowbird had experienced "dramatic growth"—to about double the previous number of flights. Foreign pilots were also participating in the program.
At the same time, the operation had become a year-round activity, and the planes being flown included F-18s and Harriers. That shift was critical because of its noise impacts on residential areas around D-M.
Compared to the A-10—the primary plane flown from D-M—F-18s are much louder on the final approach to landing, one analysis concluded, while Harriers and F-16s are somewhat louder. Some D-M neighbors claim the Harrier can be four times as loud as an A-10.
Today, Operation Snowbird's approximately 1,200 annual sorties account for between 4 and 7 percent of D-M's total flight activity, and efforts are underway to increase program participation.
The Air Force has published an advertising brochure stating one reason for this expansion effort. "The units that we host here at Operation Snowbird," it reads, "are categorized as regular users, which helps us get higher priority in being awarded the (Goldwater) range (near Ajo) and airspace times requested."
While the Air Force is pushing to promote Operation Snowbird, it has never assessed the specific environmental impacts of the expanded program. Thus, a new EA is now being prepared.
That process includes the aforementioned public meetings. One of the intents, according to an Air Force spokesman, is to solicit comments about what issues the EA might address.
From Glen Kerslake's perspective, the process should focus on noise and safety concerns. Kerslake is a member of the DM50 support group, as well as the Military Community Relations Committee (MCRC), which meets regularly to discuss base flights and other related subjects.
"Operation Snowbird is a very important mission for the United States and Davis-Monthan," Kerslake says. He adds that pilots train here because of year-round access to the Goldwater Range.
Another DM50 and MCRC member, Mike Grassinger, also lists noise and safety as potential EA topics.
While agreeing that those issues must be examined, Gomez hopes the EA goes further. An alternate member to the MCRC, Gomez would like the Air Force to consider moving Operation Snowbird to runways at Pinal Air Park or in Gila Bend.
Another option he suggests is for the program to fly out of Tucson International Airport (TIA), which is presently used by an Air National Guard mission. Gomez points out that the TIA has a sound-attenuation program for nearby homes—but D-M does not.
Consideration of a move of Operation Snowbird from Davis-Monthan looked possible when a $159,000 contract was awarded last September for the environmental assessment to Gulf South Research Corporation of Baton Rouge, La. One of the initial components of the study was to consider five different "beddown locations."
However, the Air Force has changed its mind. "That's no longer under consideration," a military spokesman says about alternate locations.
As for Operation Snowbird's safety issues, Gomez says: "I don't mean there's going to be a crash tomorrow, but you increase the safety problem by bringing the planes in over populated areas at low altitudes."
Concerning sound levels, the Wyle report concludes: "From a noise perspective, the approximate doubling of operations would probably be indistinguishable to the average individual in the context of overall DMAFB operations."
While Grassinger hopes that statement is correct, it is a conclusion Gomez strongly disputes. "It's a shock effect," he declares of the sudden loud noise of a plane flying over.
Gomez indicates the Air Force does computer modeling that averages noise over a 24-hour period. That, he says, isn't appropriate for Operation Snowbird.
Calling the expansion of the program "unsupervised," Gomez thinks Operation Snowbird is perhaps being conducted outside of federal environmental laws.
"We've raised that issue (with the Air Force)," he says.