The Air Force released an environmental report Tuesday giving a green light to a plan that will greatly increase training flights at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
In a draft environmental assessment, the Air Combat Command concluded that increasing the flights would have "no significant impact" on the environment around D-M - which means the Air Force will not be required to file a formal environmental impact statement.
Release of the report triggers a 45-day public comment period, ending Sept. 14. Then the Air Force will determine whether to proceed with the proposal.
The flights, or sorties, would take place during annual exercises known as Operation Snowbird. The training flights involve U.S. military pilots as well as aircraft from allied countries.
The Air Force's preferred plan would increase the number of Operation Snowbird sorties at D-M to 2,256 a year, adding some louder planes such as the F-18 E/F Super Hornet and the F-22 Raptor. The study also reviewed two alternatives that would scale back sorties and types of planes, as well as a "no action" alternative.
The 2,256 flights include the sorties required to deploy and redeploy participating aircraft and cargo support. This number of flights represent about 7 percent of the base's total annual training flights.
Typically, up to 12 training events would be conducted each year as part of Operation Snowbird.
The other two alternatives would allow training flights to take place at the same level as fiscal year 2002, when about 1,979 flights were conducted as part of Operation Snowbird. One alternative would only allow U.S. aircraft, and the other would include some international aircraft.
There would be a minimal noise increase from the flights, mostly in the neighborhoods southeast and northwest of the base, the report states. About 20 more houses would be affected by the higher noise levels, but the report says the increase would be imperceptible to people in the area.
Robin Gomez, spokesman for Tucson Forward, said the organization was pleased to know the environmental assessment was done, but was still concerned about the Air Force continuing to allow louder aircraft to fly so close to surrounding neighborhoods.
The organization was created to address neighborhood concerns about noise and safety from military aircraft.
"We have not read the draft environment assessment yet, but we do have serious reservations about bringing in foreign and the loudest sister service aircrafts," Gomez said, referring to aircraft used by other U.S. military services.
Operation Snowbird began in the 1970s as a part-time winter flying practice for Air Guard pilots from northern states. By 2002, it was running year-round with warplanes and pilots from other branches of service and allied nations.
Over the years, the number of training flights flown during the exercise has generally ranged between about 1,500 and 2,000 annually. The number of flights topped 2,000 during fiscal years 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007, when sorties totaled a high of 3,411, according to a 2010 study prepared for the Air Force by Wyle Laboratories.
Operation Snowbird is managed by the Arizona Air National Guard 162nd Fighter Wing, separately from the 162nd's main operations at Tucson International Airport.
View the report
The draft environmental assessment on Operation Snowbird can be found at www.dm.af.mil/library/operationsnowbirdenvironmentalassessment.asp
The report also is available at several local libraries in the Tucson area: the Eckstrom-Columbus Branch Library, 4350 E. 22nd St.; the Quincie Douglas Library, 1585 E. 36th St.; and the Salazar-Ajo Library, 33 W. Plaza St., Ajo.
Assistant Business Editor David Wichner contributed to this report. Contact reporter Jamar Younger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4115.