Proposal Would Open Indiana Skies to High-Speed Manuevers

April 11, 2005
The proposals have not been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, and airport officials and civilian pilots have expressed serious concerns about them.

SEYMOUR, Ind. (AP) -- Fighter pilots would be allowed to practice high-speed maneuvers as low as 500 feet above ground over large parts of southern Indiana under a proposal by the U.S. Air Force.

F-16s and other jets from Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio would use eight proposed training zones before heading overseas to places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The zones would cover hundreds of square miles, including large portions of airspace above Jefferson, Jennings and Scott counties on both sides of Interstate 65, starting about 30 miles north of Louisville.

Maj. Ken Stone, a pilot with the Indiana Air National Guard, said the training areas would help pilots keep their skills sharp for conflicts overseas.

''With the type of wars that we're now fighting, we need more space,'' Stone said.

But the proposals have not been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, and airport officials and civilian pilots have expressed serious concerns about them.

Clarksville resident John Grammer, president of the Scottsburg Aero Club, said he worries that small aircraft would be vulnerable to collisions with low-flying fighter jets on training missions.

''We don't even show up on their radar,'' Grammer said of the club's pilots, who fly ultralight planes made of fabric and light metal. ''We're just ground clutter to them.''

At Freeman Municipal Airport near Seymour, manager Don Furlow said his chief concern is that the training zones might restrict corporate jets and freight haulers that benefit the local economy.

Furlow said he met earlier this year with officials from the Indiana Air National Guard to work out the concerns. Airports in Bedford, Bloomington, Columbus, Madison, North Vernon, Salem and Scottsburg also would be affected.

As a result of those talks, Stone said, the military is altering the eight proposed training zones, called Military Operations Areas. The minimum altitude is being raised above 500 feet in some cases, he said, and in others the overall size is being reduced.

The current proposals are not new. Stone said the Air Force and the Indiana Air National Guard started studying the proposed zones in the late 1980s.

One cluster of four zones would be centered at the Camp Atterbury bombing range near Columbus, and the other four zones would branch out from a bombing range at the former Jefferson Proving Ground near Madison.

Airspace over both ranges already is restricted, and Stone said about 1,500 military flights take place annually at the Jefferson range.

Pilots drop training rounds at the ranges, conduct strafing missions and fire energy lasers at targets. There also are military training routes leading into the Jefferson range, Stone said, which enable pilots to perform some practice maneuvers.

But the military's proposal would cover far more territory and enable pilots to do things they cannot do on the training routes. One such example, Stone said, is a scenario in which fighter jets separate into groups and simulate an encounter with an enemy pilot.

Several military operations areas exist in Indiana -- one is near Terre Haute and two more are in the Fort Wayne area. The only two such training zones in Kentucky are at Fort Campbell, along the Tennessee border.

Public opinion among Hoosiers appears to be mixed. Madison Mayor Al Huntington said he received about half a dozen calls from concerned residents when the proposals were announced last fall.

After hearing about the plan, he said, one of his first thoughts was of a Nov. 3 incident in New Jersey in which an Air National Guard jet mistakenly fired 20mm cannon shells into a school during a night training mission.

And in a separate incident last May, two F-16 fighter jets from the Indiana Air National Guard collided along the Illinois border near Oaktown, Ind. One pilot died.

Huntington said he has been assured the training zones will not pose safety hazards for local residents. About 10 miles northwest of Madison, in the tiny town of Dupont, 64-year-old Joe Schwab said he is not worried.

''I've lived right next to that range for 25 years, and it don't bother me a bit,'' he said of the former Jefferson Proving Ground, just a few miles from the J & R Corner Grocery that he runs with his wife, Rita.