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Air Force needs to honor its word to Alaskans

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Eielson combat readiness

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing flies over Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Dec. 18, 2020. Thirty-five F-35As, F-16 Fighting Falcons and KC-135 Stratotankers conducted an “Elephant Walk” formation showcasing the air assets located in interior Alaska.

About 20 years ago, the Air Force wanted to expand the areas where it conducted low-level and supersonic fly-over exercises in Alaska to include flying within national preserves and designated wild and scenic river corridors.

Obviously, low-level jet fighter flights (F-15s, F-16s and A-10s) accompanied by sonic booms presented a conflict to hunters, boaters, campers, wildlife photographers — people seeking wilderness peace and quiet — not to mention to some of the wildlife that the parks were established, in part, to protect.

These conflicting objectives were hashed out in the early 2000s during preparation of an environmental impact statement, and the Air Force agreed to certain no-fly areas along the upper Yukon, Charley and Kandik rivers. Specifically restricted was the area lower than 2,000 feet above ground level within two miles either side of these rivers.

And there was one more compromise. With some exceptions during Red Flag exercises, the jets could only go supersonic at altitudes higher than 30,000 feet above sea level (approximately the altitude of airliners).

These restrictions were established to protect nesting peregrine falcons and Dall sheep that use the cliff areas along the rivers, as well as minimize impacts to all the people who float, camp, fish, and hunt there.

That was the deal. And for many years, the Air Force honored the agreement and educated the pilots as to the rules. There were times when pilots flew within the restricted area, but violations were infrequent, and the staff at Eielson made every effort to track down each offending pilot and set them straight.

I’m familiar with all this because I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for nearly 30 years, and I studied the impacts of military jets on wildlife in these areas. I participated, along with the Air Force, in the planning effort that established these measures to minimize the impact of low-flying jets on wildlife and people.

We are now seeing the arrival at Eielson of the new F-35 fighter aircraft, which will eventually replace the F-16 and A-10 jets. The F-35s are much, much louder. In five separate environmental analyses, the F-35 averaged nearly eight times louder than the F-16, in similar flight situations.

That means it’s even more important that the flying restrictions previously agreed upon are honored by the Air Force. Unfortunately, the current personnel at Eielson seem indifferent to the promises given.

On July 17, 2021, I was camped on an island in the Yukon River, south of Circle. At 6:02 pm, an F-35 flew over our camp, very low and extremely fast. We estimated the jet was less than 2,000 feet above the river, and it was obvious the jet was flying faster than the speed of sound, given a thunderous sonic boom. This was not during a Red Flag exercise.

This flight appeared to violate the rule prohibiting flights in the restricted area along the Yukon River, as well as the rule banning flights exceeding the speed of sound below 30,000 feet.

The next day, I filed a noise complaint as directed by the 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office at Eielson AFB. I sent an email to the Public Affairs Office with details as specified in the Air Force’s procedure for such complaints. One week later, I called the Public Affairs Office to see if they had received my email. They said they had, and they were working on the incident.

A month later, after no response from the Air Force, I wrote another email requesting again that the incident I observed be investigated. Now, three months later, I have yet to hear anything from the Air Force.

This is unacceptable. When a low-flying jet streaks over you before you can even hear it, and a sonic boom obliterates the serenity, it is a terrible and frightening experience, both for people and wildlife. Accordingly, a great deal of effort by the Air Force and wildlife agencies in Alaska went into studying these impacts and agreeing to protective measures. The Air Force needs to do its duty by honoring the commitment it made and by responding forthrightly to complaints about violations.

R.E. “Skip” Ambrose is a biologist who has conducted scientific research on the Yukon River for 50 years. His father was a career pilot in the Air Force and the base commander at Eielson Air Force Base in the 1970s.

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