Top leaders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord have made another course correction in how helicopters reach training areas on the base. They decided this week that aviators can fly to training areas without crossing the base’s borders into surrounding communities.
For now, aviators will continue to use the current off-base routes until the proper procedures are put in place, which could take a month or two, base spokesman Joe Piek said Friday. And it’s possible they could return to the off-base routes once a required study is finished.
Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, Lewis-McChord’s commanding general, and Col. H. Charles Hodges, the base’s garrison commander, which is akin to a city manager, made the decision Wednesday, Piek said.
It’s the third adjustment Lewis-McChord officials have made since Thurston County residents began complaining about helicopters flying too low, too often and too late over their homes. More than 130 people filed noise complaints.
Aviators started using the off-base air routes July 1.
In response to complaints, officials first directed aviators in August to fly higher over populated areas. Then in September, they adjusted the routes to avoid populated areas altogether.
The base established the air routes so its growing number of helicopters can maneuver to training areas in a safe and orderly manner. The arrival of a combat aviation brigade has boosted the number of helicopters stationed at the base from 90 to more than 150.
Hodges has said that planners initially thought the environmental assessment that studied the impacts of the unit’s arrival covered the off-base air routes. Once he took command in August, he was advised that wasn’t the case, and he ordered the separate environmental study.
Hodges and other officials also were checking with aviation experts to determine if helicopters could fly on base to reach training areas without jeopardizing safety.
Before moving the helicopters fully on base, officials will have to chart air routes, draft and revise procedures for flying the aircraft and redefine the training areas, Piek said.
Until that’s finished, the helicopters will continue to use the current off-base routes. However, most helicopters now use the Yakima Training Center, and some will travel out of state for more training, so the local skies should be quiet, Piek said.
The environmental assessment could take up to a year. As a result, it appears likely helicopters will fly the newly established on-base air routes for at least a few months before the assessment of the off-base air routes is concluded and commanders decide whether to use them again.Christian Hill: 253-274-7390