Guest opinion: Partners must share the air
Fairchild Air Force Base, a military installation with a continuous global mission and a community partner that employs more than 5,700 personnel and supports 17,000 retirees, resulting in an annual economic impact of $418 million, is as much a fortunate neighbor in the Inland Northwest community as it is one that relies on the support and understanding of our community.
We definitely enjoy outstanding support from Spokane and surrounding communities, whose citizens offer unwavering support to our airmen and families every day. Also, our base is located in an area with enough open space to allow our aircraft to perform their mission relatively unimpeded. Thanks to this, we are able to conduct flight training safely while at the same time ensuring minimal noise impact to the community.
In light of this, the term “encroachment” has been in the news a lot lately. Encroachment is a word that can have many different meanings, depending on your perspective. To some, it may represent the sound of aircraft engines that can momentarily drown out daily activities. To a military commander, it can bring to mind construction that presses ever closer to a flight path corridor, decreasing the safety zone protecting the community and potentially causing the loss of usable airspace. Both viewpoints are valid and should be carefully considered and respected.
The Air Force defines encroachment as “any human activities or decisions that impair or may potentially impair the current or future operational capability of an installation complex.”
The Fairchild Joint Land Use Study, a collaborative planning effort between Fairchild and local communities, further defines encroachment as “incompatible development.” It includes uses “that adversely affect the public health, safety and welfare; and those that produce externalities such as noise, smoke, dust, excessive light, electromagnetic interference and vibration, which impair the military mission. Structures that intrude into airspace are also a form of encroachment.” While encroachment is not a new issue for Fairchild, mission-limiting encroachment has become a serious issue for many military installations.
Many encroachment issues stem from population growth and urban development. Although the effects vary, encroachment generally limits the extent and types of training that can be conducted. This, in turn, impacts the military’s ability to train as they would expect to fight, and can limit the amount or quality of training. Most importantly, encroachment can also impact safety. As more homes and businesses are built closer to the base and flight paths, concerns about public health, safety and welfare increase.
Fairchild has not been immune to encroachment issues. Although the base is mostly surrounded by undeveloped land, its air traffic patterns are still affected by many issues. An air traffic pattern is basically the path an aircraft follows when landing and taking off in order to ensure air safety. Rather than having aircraft flying around the airfield in a haphazard fashion, patterns promote safety by providing pilots with situational awareness of other air traffic.
Our aircrews currently have restrictions to their traffic pattern due to our proximity to the Spokane International Airport. Military aircraft operating in the Fairchild flight pattern are restricted to operating northwest of the base. Crews are required to follow this flight pattern in order to avoid conflicting with aircraft coming from and going to Spokane International.
Additionally, we restrict our aircrews from directly overflying certain areas in Airway Heights as well as the base itself. Due to public health, safety and welfare concerns, we do not operate over Eastern Washington State Hospital, the Fairchild Air Force Base clinic, Airway Heights Correctional Facility, base housing, Sunset Elementary School or below 5,000 feet over the city of Spokane. However, as more high-occupancy development comes to the area, additional flight path restrictions may be required, which may impact the quantity and/or quality of training for our aircrews.
My focus is on our mission, people and safety, as well as maintaining a strong relationship with a great, supportive community. As we continue to be the best neighbor we can, we will also continue to work hard to meet our important mission commitments. This requires the same great partnership that Spokane, the surrounding communities and Fairchild have been very successful at for many years.
Col. Paul Guemmer is the 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander at Fairchild Air Force Base.