A spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord said Friday the base was remiss in not informing residents of a major change in air routes that has resulted in dozens of public complaints about helicopter noise this month.
More than 50 residents living south of the Army base have lodged complaints since the first week of July, when helicopters began flying outside Lewis-McChord for the first time to reach training areas.
Neighbors say the aircraft are flying too often, too low and too late, rattling windows as well as nerves and interrupting sleep.
“We should have done a lot better in notifying our communities that we are going to begin flying these new routes, especially because they were off the installation,” said Joe Piek, the base spokesman.
As a result of the complaints, the base commander is deciding whether to adjust the air routes or increase the altitude of the helicopters that fly them. It’s uncertain when he will make that decision.
A base official says the heavy traffic is expected to drop off in a month anyway as aviators finish getting familiar with the new routes.
The complaints underscore the growing pains at the base, which has seen a decade of additions to its ground combat forces that now extends to the air, as well.
The fleet of helicopters assigned to active-duty, National Guard and Reserve units has swelled by half, to 150 from 100. The arrival of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade and its 1,800 soldiers account for the bulk of that increase.
Lt. Col. Geoff Crawford, commander of a battalion assigned to the 16th CAB, has said he’d work to minimize the impacts of his unit’s training on civilian neighbors.
“We do understand that we have a relationship with the community,” Crawford told The News Tribune in May, after arriving with the first Apache combat helicopters to be assigned to Lewis-McChord, “and if we don’t have the support of the community, it makes our job that much harder, so we have to respect that and work with them.”
Michelle Beck is one resident who feels the base isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. She moved to Lacey from Sea-Tac in April partly to escape the air traffic over Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Her respite ended this month. She said she’s been awakened at night by a series of low-flying helicopters over her home just east of the Lacey city limits.
Beck said she counted 17 passes in the 5 1/2-hour period she was home Tuesday afternoon and evening, and they continued until 1 a.m. Wednesday. She tallied seven passes from 10:30 p.m. Wednesday until 1 a.m. Thursday. She finally gave up and got out of bed.
“It’s just a bombardment of noise,” she said.
Beck is tired, frazzled and upset, both at the noise and the fact that base officials didn’t alert neighbors about an impact that she worries is harming her health and property value.
The noise is a consequence of a major change in how aviators at Lewis-McChord fly to and from the 12 areas designated for helicopter training on the installation.
“The old routes (to get to the training areas) were all on the post,” explained Robert Rodriguez, the official responsible for managing Lewis-McChord’s airspace. “We had to move them off the post because we have an increase in aircraft, and we basically had to find a way to get to the training areas with the large amount of aircraft we have now.”
Rodriguez and his colleagues developed two one-way U-shaped routes that veer into Thurston County to accomplish this. The first counter-clockwise “blue” route passes over Yelm and Lake St. Clair, while the second clockwise “red” path goes out farther and directs helicopters over a group of lakes in and near Lacey and close to the city of Rainier before turning them north.
Planners couldn’t chart a route farther west without encroaching in the Olympia Regional Airport’s protected airspace, and going east would lead to conflicts with other training areas, he explained. Directing helicopters over the group of lakes seemed a good option because it’s less populated, Rodriguez explained.
“It was a very hard task and not easy to find the right route,” Rodriguez said.
Vanessa Olson and her husband Mike have lived in the neighborhood on the north end of one of those water bodies, Long Lake, for 35 years. They’ve heard the occasional military helicopter overhead but never anything like this. Wednesday night, Olson tallied one to three helicopters flying overhead each hour between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., increasing to one every five minutes between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.
The aircraft have rattled windows and items on shelves and awakened the couple.
“I’m so sleep-deprived, it’s crazy,” she said. “We’re all walking around with bags under our eyes and like zombies.”
Olson supports the military — her son is a civilian contractor who has worked in Afghanistan — but said Lewis-McChord is large enough that the helicopters can find less populated areas to fly over.
“I understand they have a job to do, but not over my house,” she said. “I didn’t want to live in a war zone.”
Base officials say every one of the about 500 aviators assigned to units at the base must fly the route both day and night to get familiar with it, sending up an unusual amount of air traffic in a short period of time. Rodriguez said aviators are required to stay at least 1,000 feet off the ground while flying the two routes. Air traffic controllers track the altitude, and he said there have been no violations.
He said the train-up flights should conclude in about a month.
“Once that’s done, then the frequency and amount of traffic in that particular air corridor should taper off by between a third and a half,” Piek said.