Air Force Academy's alternate field cuts noise for neighbors

June 22, 2014 Updated: June 23, 2014 at 9:17 am
photo - An Air Force Academy T-53 trainer flyes over the Bullseye airfield near Ellicott. The field, reopened this year, handles traffic that would otherwise train at the academy. (Air Force Photo)
An Air Force Academy T-53 trainer flyes over the Bullseye airfield near Ellicott. The field, reopened this year, handles traffic that would otherwise train at the academy. (Air Force Photo) 

ELLICOTT - The incessant buzzing from the sky drones on as student pilots circle and land, take off and circle again.

The circuit repeats every few minutes as the Air Force Academy's flight program works to train hundreds of cadets in the elements of flight in nine short weeks. In 2013, the din generated by a dawn-to-dusk flight schedule frayed the nerves of the academy's neighbors.

But this year, much of that noise is a concert for cattle near Bullseye, an auxiliary landing field in eastern El Paso County surrounded by miles of grazing land.

"We've only been using it for two weeks, but it is going to have to make the neighbors happier," said Robert Popp, the academy's assistant airfield manager.

Cadets have honed their flying skills at the 3,500-foot field near Ellicott since the 1970s, but Defense Department austerity measures changed that last year. The academy said budget cuts left it with too few personnel to properly staff the auxiliary field. That move concentrated cadet flights into a bubble that extended above neighborhoods east of the 18.500-acre campus.

Neighbor Michael Weidner said the buzz of practice takeoffs and landings, called "touch and go" in aviation circles, was nearly unbearable last summer as cadets cranked their single-engine T-53 trainer planes to full power every time they practiced taking off.

This year, Weidner gets a full chorus of the planes first thing in the morning, but the noise dies as the trainers head out to the eastern plains for much of their practice.

The distractions get quieter for cadet pilots, too.

"There's no congestion," Popp said. "You really don't have other air traffic."

Academy leaders see flight programs as a key component of cadet training, designed to familiarize cadets with the what the Air Force does before they head to actual pilot training after graduation.

The academy's airfield, easily seen from Interstate 25, is one of the busiest set of runways in the Air Force. The 306th Flying Training Group, which oversees parachuting, gilder training and powered flight at the academy, is responsible for 25,000 sorties - takeoffs and landings - per year.

Almost half of those flights take place during a nine-week summer window between the academy's graduation and the beginning of fall classes.

A few factors combined to make 2013 the loudest summer on record for neighbors. The closure of Bullseye, which can handle about a third of the academy's traffic, concentrated more planes above the academy's neighbors. And the school tightened its "pattern" - the unmarked roads in the sky where planes fly near an airfield - to make sure cadets and commercial planes were kept far apart.

Anger over the noise erupted at a meeting last fall, when neighbors gave the academy an earful over the droning student planes.

In response, the academy sought cash from the Air Force to reopen Bullseye and changed its flight patterns again, moving aircraft to a path over Interstate 25, so plane noise would be lost in the rumble of traffic below.

There's not much to Bullseye, which is so deep in grazing land that it can't be seen from nearby roads. It has a runway, a taxi way and a small ramp - just enough concrete to give student pilots a taste of dealing with larger fields.

"It's a pretty basic airfield layout," Popp said.

The sole structure is a fire station where two academy firefighters stand by for emergencies.

"It's not bad," said Senior Airman Tyler King as he watched trainers circle from the comfort of the air-conditioned fire station.

The only difficulty at Bullseye is the abundance of wildlife.

"We've had three bird strikes in two weeks," Popp said, noting that no serious damage was done and neither the students nor the planes were in danger.

For Weidner and other academy neighbors, the alternate field offers a measure of peace and quiet. There's still airplane noise, but it doesn't sound like they are under attack all day long.

"If they didn't have the alternate field, it would be immeasurably worse," Weidner said.

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