Mountain exercises would involve ridgeline take-offs and landings

Graphic courtesy Department of the Army The proposed mountain training area for army helicopters covers a large region from Wenatchee to Canada, including the Methow Valley.

Graphic courtesy Department of the ArmyThe proposed mountain training area for army helicopters covers a large region from Wenatchee to Canada, including the Methow Valley.

By Marcy Stamper

Army helicopter pilots could train for flying, landing and evasive maneuvers in a large region that includes the Methow Valley if the U.S. Army approves a plan for a new mountain training area.

The Aviation Division with Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma is proposing four new training areas for Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters and other aircraft. The mountain training area runs from south and west of Wenatchee to the Canadian border, west to the North Cascades, and east to the Okanogan Highlands. The other three areas, for lower-elevation training, are in southwestern Washington.

The Army is currently soliciting public input for topics they should address in analyzing the environmental impact of the training flights, which could include land use, air quality, noise, water resources and wetlands, and recreation and visual resources.

Training is conducted at high altitudes because changes in wind and atmospheric instability affect helicopter performance and handling. High-altitude training is critical for the safety of aviators and to prepare them for combat operations, according to the proposal.

Pilots would learn to take off and land at high altitudes, on pinnacles and on ridgelines. Other maneuvers include hovering several feet above the ground and controlling the helicopter so that only a portion — such as a single wheel — would touch down on the ground.

Training periods are typically four hours long and involve a maximum of seven helicopters. Ten to 20 landings would occur in each training session.

Training would take place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but the majority of the training would be at night to simulate flight and combat conditions. The proposal says there would be mitigation of flight activity to protect populated areas, but does not provide details.

The proposal lists eight landing zones. Seven are at high altitudes, from 5,753 feet to 7,958 feet, but there are no precise locations in the proposal. Latitude and longitude coordinates place the landing zones near the Pacific crest, Winthrop and Entiat.

The landing zones, from 1 to 6.5 acres in size, include abandoned quarries, rocky peaks and roads. They are presently cleared of vegetation and would not require alterations or ongoing maintenance, according to the proposal.

Aircraft traveling to and from the training areas would fly at 500 feet and above to minimize noise complaints and disruption to populated areas, in compliance with the Fly Friendly Program, according to the proposal. They would not follow a set flight path.

A table in the proposal shows that noise levels for the helicopters range from 98 decibels at 100 feet to 63 decibels at 2,500 feet. A power mower runs at 96 decibels and a motorcycle 25 feet away is 90. A passenger car going at highway speed 25 feet away registers at 77 decibels. Conversation is generally 60 decibels.

Much of the proposed mountain training area overlaps with the existing Okanogan Military Operations Area, which is used by aircraft from the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The Army considered other potential training sites in Colorado and Texas, but those did not meet screening criteria because of the distance and potential scheduling conflicts with other aircraft, according to the proposal. Criteria for the training areas include a variety of mountain terrain and lower density of property owners and livestock. If these new training areas are not approved, the Army would not conduct additional off-base training in Washington, but would continue to use the JBLM property and an existing training center near Yakima.

The Methow Valley News has asked for more details about the training, including exactly where the helicopters will fly and land, what mitigations the Army proposes for noise and other environmental disruptions, and safety precautions. A spokesperson for JBLM said subject-area experts are reviewing the questions but were unable to provide answers by press time.

It is also not known when the flights would begin if the new training areas are approved.

The Army is accepting comments through July 30 during the scoping phase of the proposal in order to determine which issues to address in their environmental analysis. The Army also plans to release a draft analysis on Sept. 1, hold public meetings in September, and issue a final environmental analysis on Oct. 30.

For a copy of the scoping document or more information, visit http://www.lewis-mcchord.army.mil/publicworks/sites/envir/eia_HTA.aspx or call JBLM at (253) 967-1110.