Military helicopters flying north to a mock battlefield near Colville are staying clear of a ranch outside Springdale.
The loud choppers, in the midst of a massive training exercise, triggered recent complaints to the Fairchild Air Force Base. One Springdale rancher warned: Fly low in his airspace again and he’ll fire away.
Military brass in charge of operation “Woodland Cougar” responded by slapping a No-Fly Zone, 3 miles wide, around the man’s home. Chopper pilots were warned Wednesday to look out for real gunfire.
“It gets to the point where we can’t get from here to there, because we piss so many people off,” said Air Force Maj. Greg Barber, a director of the mock rescue missions in the forests of northeast Washington.
About 700 people and 13 helicopters are involved in the seven-day, multi-force training drill that began last weekend. The nation’s largest search-and-rescue exercise comes at an awkward time to a volatile place.
Heated by last month’s Oklahoma City bombing, rural northeast Washington is laced with militia-backers, government-bashers and conspiracy theorists. Some fear the feds are spying in response to the bombing.
Mysterious, low-flying helicopters in the area bolster the theories. Some call the “black helicopters” tools of a sinister international force.
Springdale Marshall Jerry Taylor said he has only heard rumors about intrusive helicopters in his town 30 miles northwest of Fairchild.
“I’ve seen choppers fly over once in awhile, but there’s nothing to it,” said Taylor, who noted he isn’t one to engage in cover-ups. “I don’t see any signs around here saying they can’t fly in here.”
It’s not that simple, said a Springdale man who asked not to be identified. “Sometimes they’ll come so low they’ll run your horses right through the fences.”
He scoffs at government claims the helicopters never fly below 500 feet. “One came so low in January it shook the house.”
Springdale Mayor Ernie Gehrke said the helicopters are “certainly nothing to be upset about. The only people that might have some complaint is people growing some marijuana.”
Last summer, a Pend Oreille County man was busted for waving a pistol at a low-flying helicopter. The charges went from brandishing a firearm to growing marijuana after police came in for a closer look.
Pend Oreille County Sheriff Doug Malby said he does a lot of chopper searches for marijuana fields. The most frequently used helicopters are the dark National Guard choppers.
At a recent Colville gathering, billed as a source of information about black helicopters, Kettle Fallsarea resident Glenn Rowe asked who had seen black helicopters. One of every three people raised a hand.
Rowe said the National Guard claimed it didn’t know anything about them. He later said inoculations are a way to insert microchips and diseases like AIDS into the body, according to the Colville Statesman-Examiner.
U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, doesn’t dismiss complaints about intrusive helicopters.
She ran a Boise hearing recently to field gripes about Big Brother. “My concern is not the idea of phantom black helicopters invading Idaho … but the blatant disregard for private property rights by federal agents,” she said.
One result of all the commotion is a red circle on the computer screen in the mock war room at Fairchild. Helicopters shuttling the fake wounded back to the base from the ongoing imaginary battle in the Colville National Forest must go well around the Springdale home.
The second Woodland Cougar search and rescue exercise is far more ambitious than last year’s, which involved only about 150 people.
The 700 participants this year hail from military bases throughout the West, with more than half of them from the Air Force Reserve’s 939th Rescue Wing, based in Portland.
Capt. Stephen Clutter, a spokesman for the wing, admitted the timing for the massive exercise is bad.
“We planned this a year in advance. It just happens to be when people are on edge. It has nothing at all to do with what happened in Oklahoma City.”
Inside Fairchild’s mock war room, there were far bigger concerns than potential anti-government potshots.
Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine brass worked together to stop Limnadia, a central Washington country, from overtaking Adelene, an Eastern Washington and Idaho country.
The imaginary battle raged through the night with the helicopters rescuing downed pilots, and eluding mock enemies in hilly, wooded terrain between the Pend Oreille River and state Route 395.
By late Wednesday morning another string of helicopters left Fairchild, en route to a battle that is scheduled to end Saturday.
Charles Cochrane manned the high-tech flight screen that showed the no-fly zone near Springdale. Asked if he had to designate any more no-fly-zones yet, Cochrane said he might have to after another day of loud choppers flying around. He smiled, and added, “Just tell them that’s the sound of freedom.”