Joint Base Lewis-McChord helicopters might fly over your house from time to time, but the Army has dropped a plan to send them regularly into civilian communities in Pierce and Thurston counties.
The decision follows a surge of complaints about Army helicopters in the summer of 2012, when the base allowed aviators to fly over Lacey and Olympia on a daily basis on their way to training areas.
Now those helicopters will remain on base for standard training. They might fly over civilian communities to reach the Yakima Training Center or for nonstandard events in accordance with federal aviation law, said base Commander Col. Charles Hodges.
“From the public’s perspective, we’re not going to be flying over your house every day,” he said Thursday.
Hodges halted the off-base routes in October 2012 because of complaints from civilian communities and a review that concluded they were illegal under federal environmental law. The News Tribune published a special report about the situation in the Aug. 4 newspaper.
Hodges last summer told a reporter the Army was conducting an environmental assessment that was intended to open up different flying routes over civilian communities in eastern Pierce County.
That proposal also has been scuttled, Hodges told The News Tribune on Thursday. Army lawyers determined that flying regular off-base routes would require a more rigorous environmental study than they originally thought, and likely would cost several million dollars.
“It was cost-prohibitive,” Hodges said.
Aviation commanders subsequently decided they could meet their training needs while remaining on base and flying occasional routes around Western Washington that do not require full environmental impact studies, Hodges said.
“We did not really need” the off-base routes, he said.
Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, spokesman for the 7th Infantry Division, said the new plan will meet the training demands of Army aviators. He said crews will still fly off base, but not in regular patterns.
"The on base route structure does not hinder our training readiness, nor does it preclude our ability to fly off the base. They are simply a measure to safely maneuver aircraft in and around the training areas on the reservation," he said.
Lewis-McChord’s fleet of Army helicopters swelled in late 2011 and early 2012 when it gained the headquarters for the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade and a former Texas-based battalion consisting of Apache helicopters.
The base now has about 140 helicopters from the aviation brigade, Washington National Guard and a battalion from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
The News Tribune’s investigation found that aviation officers advocated for off-base routes in 2011 as they sought to develop safe training standards for the new-arriving helicopters. An on-base training accident in December 2011 that killed four pilots heightened their concerns.
The Army in 2012 did not notify the public it had developed flying routes in Pierce and Thurston counties because commanders incorrectly believed a 2010 environmental study that permitted the addition of the aviation headquarters and Apache battalion also allowed them to fly off base.
In other Army news, Hodges on Thursday told South Sound business and local government leaders that federal spending constraints are limiting other projects around the base, such as:
• A proposal to build a mall-like marketplace on base called Freedom Crossings is off the table for now. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service had wanted to build the $38 million project, but put it on hold because of federal budget cuts.
The mall was appealing to the Army because it would have increased shopping opportunities on base, while neighboring cities such as Lakewood were concerned about losing business.
• Spending on maintenance at Lewis-McChord nosedived this year because of the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Hodges said the military is only putting money into emergencies and projects that are vital to the health and safety of the base’s population.
He anticipates more cuts in the upcoming year. The base’s budget for municipal-like services peaked in 2011 at $432 million. Last year it was down to $344 million.