Cooler airplanes could help cool tensions between the Air Force Academy and its neighbors as cadets hit the height of their flying season this summer.
In past years, the academy's T-53 training planes took off at the crack of dawn and flew well into the evening. But during the heat of the day the program took a siesta because the planes lacked air conditioning. Air-conditioning units aboard the Cirrus single-engine planes solved that problem and allows cadets to get most of their flights in while academy neighbors are away at work.
"We're taking off slightly later and we can fly in the heat of the day," said Col. Steve Burgh, who heads the academy's flight programs.
Adding air-conditioning units is the latest of several steps the academy has taken to placate neighbors since complaints arose in 2013 after the academy changed the route planes use to reach training areas in eastern El Paso County. Neighbors said too many planes took off too early in the morning and buzzed over homes east of the airfield.
The academy tweaked its flight routes and opened an alternative field near Ellicott to put planes over pastures rather than neighborhoods.
"We try to do as many sorties as we can away from the airfield," Burgh said.
With the air conditioning, the planes can use more of the day for flying and take off later, making them less of an alarm clock for neighbors east of the airfield. Not being able to fly training planes in the heat of the day took precious hours out of the program, he said.
But getting air conditioners on the planes took more than a few wrenches. The diminutive T-53 is an Air Force craft, just like fighters and bombers, and any change to the machine requires approval from on high.
"It's a long and arduous staff process," Burgh said.
The air conditioners are as much a relief to the Air Force as they are to the academy's neighbors. Every summer, the school works to introduce more than 1,000 cadets to its aerial programs, which include gliders, parachuting and powered flight. Summer training flights make up about half of the school's annual aerial sorties, because the cadets aren't in class and fall sports haven't begun.
"The cadets get to dedicate all of their attention to learning how to fly and jump," Burgh said.
The purpose of the flying programs is multi-faceted, Burgh said. Cadets get a chance to translate engineering skills learned in the classroom to hands-on experience. They also gain confidence and learn to lead their peers.
The Air Force also gains an advantage of having every cadet, including those who want to spend Air Force careers in missile silos or battling in cyberspace, gain an understanding of aerial missions.
"It's important that we expose them to airmanship here," Burgh said.
To make flying more acceptable to the neighbors, the academy has held a series of meetings to hash out noise issues. The flying program is also being examined as part of a joint land-use study that aims to balance military needs and community concerns.
Things seem to be quieter lately - two vocal critics of the academy's flight program didn't return phone calls for this article and a website set up by neighbors to document complaints has gone dormant.
Burgh said the academy will continue to look at neighborhood concerns as the number of flights hits an annual peak in the coming weeks.
"We want to be good partners with the local community," he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240