The risk of realistic military training to civilian air traffic

The United States Armed Forces are often called the best in the world, because they train like the fight.

Realistic training is the cornerstone to getting the forces ready for war, and no place is that more true than at Luke Air Force Base, located west of Phoenix. There, student pilots take advantage of open air space all over Arizona, but sometimes, realistic training can create risks for both Air Force pilots, and others using Arizona airspace.

"Great weather, great air space great ranges. It's what makes this area great to train our pilots," said Bill Gillies, Chief of Airspace Management of the 56th Fighter Wing.

Luke Air Force Base is home of the 56th Fighter Wing. Pilots have been training in F-16's in the area for years, and now, they also train in the new F-35.

"Airspace management oversees the airspace that we fly in," said Gillies.

It's Gillies' job to make sure all student pilots fly in the right place, and at the right altitudes.

"We brief our pilots and tell them areas that they need to be aware of, as they are flying low," said Gillies.

Flying low is something these pilots do a lot.

"Everyone of our low levels have special operating procedures," said Gillies.

"If he's any lower than 500 feet, your dog's going to be bouncing around, your dishes are going to be bouncing out of the cupboard, and your wife is going to go, 'what was that?'" said Jerry Padgett, a flight instructor.

Padgett used to be part of Yavapai County's Search and Rescue helicopter team. Now retired, he's very familiar with the airspace around Black Canyon City, and with the low level air force flights.

"They come down so low over the Black Canyon City area, it becomes quite of a problem as far as safety," said Padgett.

A map of the airspace north of Phoenix, called an FAA Sectional Chart, shows the northern part of Phoenix in yellow, where air traffic is tightly controlled. Next to that area, on the bottom lefthand side of the map, shows a military alert area for student pilots from Like, marked in red. North of that is Black Canyon City, in orange and in an area of open airspace.

Near that area runs a low level military route, called VR241, where student pilots can fly northeast out of Luke, and then turn southeast, and fly over Black Canyon City. With military aircraft flying so low and so fast, Padgett says he's worried about a mid-air accident.

"It's very unnerving to the people and dangerous," said Padgett.

As the charts show, this same area is used by commercial aircraft approaching Phoenix. There are also low-flying helicopters and small general aviation aircraft training.

"You can have some serious air conflicting problems because of the speed of their aircraft, and the different altitudes of the different routes," said Padgett. "General aviation is running, commercial aviation runs. It's all mixed together."

There are other hazards as well.

Last February, an F-16 from an Air National Guard base in Tucson made an emergency landing at Sky Harbor Airport. The student pilot reportedly clipped a power line just outside Black Canyon City on VR241, the same air route mentioned above.

No one was hurt, and the jet landed safely. A final report has not been released, but Padgett says the folks in Black Canyon City know what happened.

"He come down off the top of the Bradshaw Mountain range and dropped down and flipped up on his side, and I'm pretty sure he caught a wingtip on the static line, which is the very top line, and either damaged his aircraft or whatever it was he did," said Padgett. "It was bad enough where he had to make an emergency landing at Sky Harbor Airport. That's pretty critical."

The tower that holds up the power line, according to Padgett, is 364 feet above ground level, but Air Force pilots using this route can fly even lower.

"The low level is charted down to 300 feet," said Gillies.

While the fighter involved in the incident was not based at Luke, the rules are the same for all military training flights, and there are a lot more routes just like these.

"The military training routes, we own 8 and we fly 8 throughout the state," said Gillies.

The Air Force says it will do everything it can to keep the airspace safe.

"They are not flying unsafe," said Gillies. "They are flying what they are trained to do. Low altitude navigation."

No matter how dangerous it may look, the Air Force says these jets are flying within the rules. If they don't, Gillies says the Air Force wants to know about it.

"If there are complaints and people have issues, call our public affairs office if they do that," said Gillies. "Nothing festers. We are able to answers questions and education them, because that is what we are here to do."

The U.S. Navy and Marines also have designated air routes over Arizona for training their pilots.

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