November 9, 2013 Updated: November 9, 2013 at 3:59 pm
The Air Force Academy is hoping to quiet neighborhood concerns over airplane noise from its cadet training programs.
Complaints have grown in volume since January when the academy changed its air traffic patterns due to Federal Aviation Administration concerns. The changes concentrate more planes over the Briargate neighborhood.
Complaints rose to a roar this summer when flight classes were being conducted.
"It has pretty much destroyed our quality of life, with dozens of planes buzzing low from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day over our home," Briargate resident Cathy Dawson said. "We are very military-friendly and many of our husbands have served, but the situation is not acceptable."
Unless budget talks get the academy cash to move some of the plane traffic, the noise is going to be a constant buzz.
"We were flying over you before, and there is no way to not fly over your neighborhood," said Col. Joe Rizzuto, who commands the academy's 306th Flying Training Group.
Rizzuto and other academy officials have scheduled a Tuesday meeting to talk through the noise with neighbors.
In late 2012, the academy was notified of Federal Aviation Administration mandates that changed the route for how some planes reach the Denver International Airport.
The new route put cadets on training flights below Denver-bound commercial jets. That triggered a wider review of academy traffic patterns and changes that put cadet planes out of the path of jets headed to Colorado Springs, too.
The new routes are safer, but put more planes in a compact area east of the academy, within a bubble of space set aside for the academy by the FAA.
"I have had four or five complaints," said Colorado Springs City Councilman Joel Miller, who represents the area that's getting the bulk of the academy's overflights.
The new traffic pattern surprised neighbors. The academy held meetings for the aviation community, but no neighborhood forum ahead of the change.
But, taken alone, the increased plane traffic might be muffled. Budget woes of the Air Force took off the earmuffs.
At the busiest flying times for the academy, nearly half the flights once took place over farmland in eastern El Paso County, centered on a landing field dubbed Bullseye.
Six miles north of Ellicott, the field was a great place for cadets to learn how to take off and land their T-53 single-engine training planes.
But Bullseye needs a full staff to handle the traffic - positions that were cut this year as part of a Pentagon program to carve $1 trillion from its budget over a decade.
Without the alternate field, the academy focused its flights on its on-campus airfield, which can be seen from Interstate 25.
Col. Kim Hawthorne, the top planner for academy flight programs, said cutting flights isn't a serious option. Flying, he said, is a key part of the academy's program to turn teenagers into second lieutenants.
"We seek to get the right experience at the right time for the right cadets," he said.
The academy has three flight programs - unpowered flight in gliders, parachuting, and powered flight, which is causing all the buzz.
More than 1,900 cadets per year take part in the flying programs, with hundreds getting their first taste of the air in the powered T-53, an Air Force variant of the civilian Cirrus SR-20.
Hawthorne said cadets learn how to lead comrades through a flight program, learn how to stay safe in the air, and feel the fundamentals they're learning in aeronautics classrooms.
"I found those really helped me develop as a leader," he said.
The biggest teaching, Hawthorne said, is safety.
"'Safety first' permeates all of our programs," Rizzuto said.
Tell that to Dawson and her neighbors, who she says live in fear of cadet pilots so close to their rooftops.
"They fly dangerously low, and it has many in this area worried," she said.
Cadet flights are relatively low - something dictated by aircraft performance more than policy. The T-53 is a small plane that doesn't climb very fast or go very high, and cadets fly over Briargate at about 7,200 feet - 700 feet above homes thanks to Colorado's elevation.
The academy says at that height, the T-53 puts out less than 85 decibels - about the same noise level as road traffic during a commute.
"It doesn't help a person trying to sleep during the day who works at night (like me), but as far as Air Force flying operations and the compatibility with neighbors - this is a huge and uncommon plus," Councilman Miller wrote in a note to his noise-weary constituents.
Volume of flights is the biggest factor driving volume on the ground. The academy has about 10 T-53s in the air at any given time. With gliders and planes for parachuting, the number of planes in the air nears 30 on most days, making the academy's airfield the busiest of its kind in the world.
In a bid to push some of that traffic from Colorado Springs neighborhoods, the academy is looking for ways to reopen Bullseye, including a possible partnership with the Army to staff it.
But, barring progress there, options to hush academy flight programs are few.
Because the academy's bubble of authorized air space is only 3 miles wide, changes to the traffic patterns would be measured in yards, not miles.
"I'm not sure that if we did change the pattern, we wouldn't be having some of the same concerns," Rizzuto said.
And the academy is not considering varying its routes because consistency is key for student pilots.
"Predictability is key," Rizzuto said.
And the Air Force will keep flying.
Commanders say they would fail in their mission if cadets were grounded.
"We would love not to fly over anyone's house," Rizzuto said. "It's a balancing act."
Contact Tom Roeder at 636-0240