The Maryland Air National Guard is hoping to train pilots in low-altitude flights over the Pennsylvania Wilds, but the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has a few caveats.
The Air National Guard is preparing an environmental assessment for a flight training area that would include McKean, Potter, Cameron and Elk counties, and parts of Cattaraugus and Allegany counties in New York.
The plan would involve A-10C Warthogs with Maryland Air National Guard 175th Wing flying at low altitudes. The flights would be “100 feet above ground level to 7,999 feet above mean sea level to be used 4 hours per day, 170 days per year, two hours at a time, twice a day, with no more than six total aircraft,” read a letter from Ramon Ortiz of the National Guard Bureau in Maryland.
“Weekend and night time operations at low-altitude would be limited,” the letter indicated. “No supersonic operations, release of chaff and flares, infrastructure changes or ground disturbance, ordnance deployment, or weapons firing would be conducted.”
A notice from the Guard to numerous agencies in Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York indicated the low-altitude training is critical.
“Availability of low-level training airspace is needed to avoid training shortfalls and a lack of combat readiness,” the letter indicated.
While DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn acknowledged the need for training, she voiced concerns over the proposal’s “impact on wildlife, residents and visitors, and the communities that rely on the outdoors for steady tourism revenue. The proposed activity would drastically change the character of this region and the numerous state parks and forests that shape its unique conservation landscape and wilderness.”
Impacts would be felt on state parks, she explained.
“Twelve state parks would be impacted by this proposed activity, including Bucktail, Cherry Springs, Denton Hill, Elk, Kettle Creek, Lyman Run, Ole Bull, Patterson, Prouty Place, Sinnemahoning, and Sizerville. Pennsylvania’s state park system draws over 36 million visitors each year and significantly supports the state’s $13 billion outdoor recreation and tourism industry. “
Dunn stated that the region’s economy depends on tourism.
“The region, before capitalizing on its natural character and heritage, had experienced decades of divestment and population decline,” she said. “Nature tourism and outdoor recreation are the significant economic drivers for communities in the Pennsylvania Wilds; preserving the scenic beauty and natural landscape has been the foundation for growing the $1.8 billion nature and heritage tourism of the region.”
She indicated the proposed activity could have a detrimental impact.
“The activity is proposed to occur almost half of the year (170 days) for 4 hours a day which would cause extreme disruption to those on the ground; negatively impact the tourism industry (which provides significant economic benefits to this region of Pennsylvania); and cause cumulative impacts to wildlife in particular, migratory birds and elk,” Dunn said.
She offered alternatives, including the Guard finding another location, eliminating low-level flight activity over state parks or tourist destinations, or prohibiting it during raptor migration, elk rut, hunting season, weekends and holidays.
In the letter, Dunn wrote, “The agency believes that these low-level airspace activities are not conducive to the nature of this wilderness area and could adversely impact the natural resources and wildlife we protect; impede Pennsylvanians’ constitutional right to recreate in our parks and forests, and harm the people and businesses that rely on these lands for their livelihood.”
Ramon’s letter indicated other locations and alternatives were considered and dismissed.
A draft environmental assessment is expected to be released for public review and comment in September.
The A-10 Warthog planes, according to the U.S. Air Force, have two General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofan engines. It is the U.S. Air Force’s primary low-altitude, close air support aircraft, with “excellent maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude, and is a highly accurate and survivable weapons-delivery platform. The aircraft can loiter near battle areas for extended periods of time and operate in low ceiling and visibility conditions. The wide combat radius and short takeoff and landing capability permit operations in and out of locations near front lines.”
The planes are 53’4” in length with a wingspan of 57’6”. The range is 2,580 miles.