WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2013
PENINSULA DAILY NEWS
Noise complaints an issue for Army Lewis-McChord works on enviro study, outreach should have been contacted beforehand. Inexplicably, it never JOINT BASE LEWIS- happened. MCCHORD — Army commanders broke federal law Environmental study when they let new-arriving Lewis-McChord has helicopter crews fly regular routes over nearby civilian since gone back to the drawcommunities in 2012 as ing board. It’s working on a full part of a buildup of helicopimpact ter forces at this huge base environmental study on permanent offsouth of Tacoma. They failed to follow base routes. The study will be availrequirements to reach out to the base’s civilian neigh- able to the public this fall, bors and study the full and officers promise a impacts of the noisy after- robust public process, including open hearings. hours training. But some neighbors In a lengthy investigative report published this remain frustrated by heliweek by The News Tribune copters flying too low, too newspaper in Tacoma in the late, too loud and too often. Training exercises have wake of an unannounced low-flying Army helicopter continued on nonstandard exercise in the Port Angeles routes that do not require area July 11, the base’s environmental studies. “One of the really diffileaders said their actions cult things of this was our were inadvertent. complete loss It took a of faith in the flood of pub- “I believe Joint Base military lic com- Lewis-McChord can here,” said plaints from Izeekiel do a better job when civilian residents near possible to proactively Lundsten, a Lacey resiL e w i s communicate dent of 19 McChord years. and consul- information about She told of tation with training flights to the day and night attorneys military helipublic.” before they U.S. REP DENNY HECK copters flyrealized they D-Olympia overs, often had violated continuing as federal envilate as 2 a.m., saying, “You ronmental laws. almost feel like you’re under “We found out after attack.” [that] we were wrong,” said “We support our bases,” 7th Infantry Division Dep- she said. “But it was such a uty Cmdr. Col. William feeling of helplessness. It Gayler. was such a feeling of being The commanders invaded.” acknowledge they were When the Army rushing to plan safe train- announced in March 2011 ing routes ahead of a major that Lewis-McChord would expansion of the base’s air- be the new home for the power — about 40 choppers 16th Combat Aviation Briadded to a fleet of about gade, it compelled the big100, capping eight years gest changes in at least two during which the base’s decades in how helicopters helicopter strength has maneuver in and out of the nearly tripled. base’s air space. They made the mistake As aviation brigade headat a time when helicopter quarters prepared to move safety was in the spotlight from Alaska, its leaders after a December 2011 pushed for safety measures. crash on the base killed “If we can’t get a handle four Army aviators. on this by the time the [new To make flying safer for helicopters arrive in 2012], crews, Army leaders autho- there’s a high chance of an rized off-base routes in the aviation accident,” Col. Robsummer and fall of 2012. ert Dickerson, then-top aviIn so doing, they jeopar- ation officer, was quoted as dized relations with civilian saying at a planning meetresidents in the Lewis- ing Dec. 2, 2011. McChord area who — like Meeting minutes were Port Angeles residents in included among hundreds July — weren’t consulted of pages of documents about flight patterns over obtained by The News Tritheir homes. bune through a Freedom of Documents obtained by Information Act request. The News Tribune show Dickerson’s words that some officials knew proved prophetic. Nine days that the base’s neighbors later, two small Kiowa heliTACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE PENINSULA DAILY NEWS
TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE
A “sling load” exercise with a Black Hawk takes place July 26 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. copters crashed in an aviation training area near Lacey, killing four pilots. The crash happened well before the Army got a chance to implement the safety improvements that Dickerson’s team wanted. It was a tragic coincidence. The Kiowas had been stationed at LewisMcChord for several years. They went down five months before the first new helicopter would land at Lewis-McChord. But base officials acknowledge it “sped up” adoption of new flight operation rules, known in military shorthand as 95-1 for the specific section in Army regulations. The safety measures include creating off-base helicopter routes to ease pressure on Lewis-McChord airspace, which is crowded with other military aircraft.
Residents weren’t told Affected residents were given no notice about the changes — and no opportunity to comment on them. Only after residents flooded the installation with complaints last summer did commanders learn from
base lawyers that an Army study they thought covered off-base routes actually did not sanction them. “The noise complaints coming in here forced us to look at what we were doing and . . . that’s when the legal guys came back and said, ‘You know, this is not kosher,’” Col. H. Charles Hodges Jr., Lewis-McChord’s garrison commander, told The News Tribune. Hodges started the job as the noise complaints reached their peak in the summer of 2012. Breaking the law was unintentional, officers say, born of confusion over the authority of a 2011 environmental review that looked at the impacts of bringing the aviation brigade to Lewis-McChord, now the West Coast’s largest military base. “We thought we were covered,” said Robert Rodriguez, the base’s top civilian aviation officer. “And when we dug into it deeper, we realized we weren’t.” During the first part of 2013, the base got noise complaints from residents living in Lacey, Steilacoom and on Anderson Island. Aviators were flying in
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preparation for the arrival of new Apaches and Black Hawks, and they had to make contact with beacons placed at various airports. They weren’t flying standard routes, so the Army did not notify the communities. The military is not required to produce an environmental study for those flights any more than a civilian pilot would for a onetime trip to a civilian airport. Base officials said helicopter traffic has tapered off and won’t return to that level now that pilots have completed the assignment. Even so, mistrust lingers among residents who didn’t see the helicopters coming and still are startled by them. U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, said that his office has fielded complaints from residents about the helicopter noise over the past few months. City managers in Lacey and Olympia heard from a few residents, too, earlier this year. “While some level of noise pollution is a fact of life when living near a large military installation, I believe Joint Base LewisMcChord can do a better job when possible to proactively communicate information about training flights to the general public,” Heck said.
Flights over Peninsula The Army gave no prior notice to civilians before Army helicopters from Lewis-McChord — four Chinooks supported by several Black Hawk attack choppers — flew late-night training exercises over Port Angeles homes on July 11. The training exercises by pilots of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment ran from about 10:30 p.m. to shortly before midnight. The Coast Guard station in Port Angeles, used for takeoffs and landings, was notified, but the exercises surprised local law enforcement and the public. Port Angeles Mayor Cherie Kidd, saying the visitation “terrorized my city,” spoke with Hodges at the base in Tacoma. At Kidd’s suggestion, Hodges attended a Port Angeles City Council meet-
ing to apologize and assure local residents that prior notification would be provided in the future. Things went better later in the month when two CH-47 Chinook helicopters landed at night at Jefferson County International Airport just south of Port Townsend to practice refueling procedures. It was a much smaller exercise than the Port Angeles mission, and it didn’t take the choppers over Port Townsend. Port of Port Townsend Executive Director Larry Crockett received word from Lewis-McChord two days ahead of time. He notified Jefferson County Administrator Philip Morley, City Manager David Timmons and Jefferson County Sheriff Tony Hernandez. There was no contact by Lewis-McChord with the news media. But the Peninsula Daily News was notified by county officials, and the upcoming exercises were publicized on the PDN’s front page. Authorities said they heard no complaints from residents. These training exercises happen at the Jefferson airport every year or so, Crockett said, and he has always been alerted by the Army. Maj. Emily Potter, Army Special Operations Aviation Command spokeswoman, said the exercises on the North Olympic Peninsula allow aviators to train in unfamiliar environments not too far from the base.
Better information Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas said he would like more advance notice so town officials could alert residents of significant training exercises. Base officials say giving advance warning is difficult because many factors, primarily weather, can change flight plans in short order. But Joe Piek, a Fort Lewis-McChord spokesman, said the public affairs office is working with aviation units to better inform communities in advance. “That not only alleviates the complaints, but it also alleviates a lot of curiosity because people will know what to expect,” Piek said.
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Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma became in 2011 the new home for the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, bringing in 40 additional helicopters, like the AH-64 Apache seen above at the base.
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Published on Aug 7, 2013