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The not-so-friendly skies of Central Colorado

Column by Hal Walter

Military overflights – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

I COULD HEAR THEM COMING before I could see them. The drone of low-flying cargo planes distracted me from my work. I turned to my big office window and watched as the olive-drab behemoths came into view, buzzing single-file like giant bumblebees at eye-level just above the canyon two miles to the east.

I’m no aircraft expert, but I believe they were C-130s. As I watched them lumber past, I suddenly became aware of a big shadow entering my property, and before I knew it my window was framing one of the big planes in a closely cropped manner. The rumble shook my house and the plane itself cleared the ponderosa pine on the low hilltop to the north by not very much. The only aircraft I’ve been closer to are ones in which I was a passenger.

This was right around April 15th, and I had been musing about what, exactly, I was paying for by being an honest, tax-paying citizen.

Regionally speaking, the most visible signs of my investment in this country are traffic delays on U.S. Highway 50, mismanaged public lands, Environmental Porkbarrel Agency superfund-for-lawyers programs, and the amber glow of light from the human warehousing project in Florence. Now I can add noise and visual pollution from low-flying military aircraft to my list of taxpayer “benefits.”

These guys are protecting me from the commies? Saddam Hussein? Give me a break. The military owns much of Nevada, a good chunk of New Mexico, and just about everything between Colorado Springs and Pueblo West. In all, about 1 million square miles of this nation are designated as military airspace. Why do they need to fly their toys right over my house?

I did not move to the mountains to be buzzed by military aircraft on a regular basis. If I wanted that I might have moved to a war zone like Sarajevo or Los Angeles. But right here in the Wet Mountains, on top of one of the oldest mountain ranges in Colorado, I’m routinely pestered by an almost endless stream of fighter, cargo and bomber planes, and spooky black helicopters.

Once while driving toward Westcliffe, I noticed something moving slowly behind the ridges in my immediate skyline. I stopped and watched as what I believe to be a B-52 cruised through the Wet Mountain Valley well below the elevation at which I was driving my truck.

A few weeks ago I was talking to one of my neighbors who lives about 6 miles away. Both of us were outdoors enjoying rare winter sunshine and talking on cordless phones when the fast-movers — F-16 fighter jets — shrieked past loud enough for him to hear them through my phone. “They’re heading your way, man,” I shouted above the roar and into the handset. But by the time I finished the sentence I could already hear the shriek coming out of the earpiece.

Early every morning and late every evening, there’s a prop plane that passes over my house. In the morning it’s headed toward the southwest, and in the evening it buzzes back toward Colorado Springs. This plane actually travels at a reasonable elevation, and I suspect it’s some sort of commuter or shuttle craft.

In addition, there are all manner of other craft buzzing about. From time to time, local real-estate pimps take potential clients out for a view of landscape. The Colorado Division of Wildlife’s cockpit cowboys are up there counting deer and elk. And we have commercial jetliners taking off from and landing at Front Strange airports. A friend recently told me that he had a good view of my rooftop during a flight to Phoenix.

WHILE CAMPING IN THE Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, I’ve been annoyed by planes too. What an irony — a wilderness area where it is illegal to drive a motor vehicle on the ground, but where the sounds of aircraft echo off the talus and drown out the high-pitched squeals of the marmots.

Wilderness areas should be “no-fly zones.”

The sky is busy, and I don’t see any traffic cops up there. With all of this going on, how long could it be before two of these craft collide, or someone parks a plane in the living room of a ridge-top trophy home? In February a U.S. military plane cut a ski-lift cable in Italy, causing the deaths of 20 innocent people. You’ve gotta fly pretty low to clip a ski-lift cable. Maybe these flyboys trained in Central Colorado.

Planes do hit the ground around here from time to time. A few years ago a private pilot crashed his plane, killing all aboard, on a ridge just to the south of my ranch during an early fall snowstorm. To my knowledge the last military plane to crash in the vicinity, was back in 1943 when three joy-flyers from the old air base in La Junta slammed a B-25D into the flank of Rito Alto Peak, in what is now the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness (Colorado Central, May, 1995). The official U.S. Army report of the accident stated: “Pilot was buzzing various objects in the valley near the scene of the accident prior thereto, and immediately before the accident flew into the canyon, and in an attempt to pull out, hit the side of the mountain.”

It’s going to be difficult for a small number of rural malcontents such as ourselves to convince the powers that be that our peace, solitude, safety, and need for “wildness” is more important than “military readiness.” But we can rest assured that time and nature are on our side.

Someday we will have our way.

ON THE RARE OCCASIONS that I’ve found myself stuck in rush-hour traffic in a large city, I almost always find myself thinking about how there are thousands and thousands of automobiles doing this very same drill in hundreds of cities all over the world. Like looking into the night sky and wondering about questions such as how many galaxies there are, how deep space is, and where God really lives, it’s truly mind-boggling to think that there is enough gasoline for rush hour to happen everywhere, twice a day, five days of every week, every month of every year, for ever and ever and ever. How much gasoline is there? Well, certainly not enough for that, especially when you take into account our rapidly growing population.

Likewise, sometimes when I look upwards and take notice of all the aircraft — jet contrails criss-crossing the blue sky in the day, navigation lights blinking against a black sky at night — I wonder to myself how much aircraft fuel there really is. It must take a lot of the stuff to keep a jetliner aloft. How long can the supply last? Five years? Ten years? One hundred years? It seems reasonable to me that science will probably easily and cheaply find a replacement for petroleum to keep our automobiles running. But airplanes are a different story. It will be much more difficult to find a replacement fuel that produces the intense power it takes to fly.

Nature seeks an equilibrium state. Just as water flows downhill, we will run out of fuel for our flying machines someday. And while we’re driving around in our solar-powered cars, maybe we’ll look to a quiet sky where there are no contrails, where there are no blinking lights. And maybe we’ll realize that a small world just got a whole lot bigger.

Hal Walter has considered installing blinking red lights on the chimney of his humble house in the Wet Mountains near Westcliffe.