Aviators at Joint Base Lewis-McChord began flying their helicopters at higher altitudes over populated areas of Thurston County on Friday to reduce noise that generated dozens of complaints from area residents, a base spokesman said.
Col. Thomas Brittain, Lewis-McChord’s garrison commander, made the decision Tuesday after a review stemming from the complaints, base spokesman Joe Piek said.
The altitude change took effect Friday morning after notice went out to the aviators.
“That should make a big difference in the noise,” Piek said.
Base officials have said air traffic should taper off later this month after the approximately 500 aviators assigned to Lewis-McChord units finish familiarizing themselves with new flight paths during day and night missions.
Officials established the new air routes to ensure the growing number of helicopters stationed at Lewis-McChord could fly to and from training areas on the base in an orderly and safe fashion.
It’s the first time helicopters have flown off base to reach the training areas.
The number of helicopters at Lewis-McChord has notably increased with the arrival of a new combat aviation brigade. The total number of helicopters at has increased to 150 from 100.
Residents living under the new routes say the helicopters have flown too low, too often and too late, interrupting sleep and jarring nerves.
Last week, the base reported that more than 50 people had filed noise complaints since helicopter crews began flying the new air routes in the first week of July, and more have come in since then.
The concerns prompted officials to review the air routes, and Piek acknowledged the base should have done a better job of informing residents about the change.
There are two new one-way routes. The first counter-clockwise “blue” route passes over Yelm and Lake St. Clair; 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.
Aviators were instructed to fly no lower than 1,000 feet on the red route and no lower than 1,300 feet on the blue route. Air traffic controllers track the altitude, and a base official has said there have been no violations.
Brittain ordered that aviators fly 500 feet higher on the north-south leg of both routes that pass over populated areas outside Lacey. As a result, aviators will fly no lower than 1,500 feet and 1,800 feet, respectively, on the legs of the red and blue routes.
Ronald Brown, who lives under the red route northeast of Long Lake near Lacey, said Thursday that he’s certain the helicopters have been flying lower than 1,000 feet despite the base’s assurances they’re holding to that minimum altitude.
He was pessimistic the noise that has kept him awake at night and frightened his two cats will abate with the adjustment.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any noticeable impact,” he said.
Veronica Whitcher lives under the red route and also doubts the higher altitude will mean much change.
“Every night the helicopters have been waking up my almost 1-year-old at least once,” she wrote in an email.
“If they are this loud at 1,000 feet, then 1,500 (feet) is not going to be much better,” she said.christian.hill@ thenewstribune.com 253-274-7390 @TNTchill