Residents in Southwest Washington could see more low-flying military aircraft in the future.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord is proposing to establish three off-base helicopter training areas and one mountain training area. These training areas would be available to use 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, except for federal holidays. The training would involve helicopters flying as low as 500 feet above ground level.
The sites are relegated to open areas, such as one area outside of Oakville in Grays Harbor County. According to maps, two of the training areas are located south and west of Highway 12 and encompass most of the state’s southwestern corner. Another training area is located near Mount St. Helens. The mountain training area is located in the Cascades north of Wenatchee.
JBLM has released a “scoping document” for the proposal that is available online. The purpose of these training areas, according to JBLM, is to prepare aviation units “for immediate deployment worldwide in support of the National Defense Mission.”
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JBLM training has been known to take place over residential areas, including a training exercise last weekend with low-flying aircraft that rattled some residents in Thurston County.
The Army has steadily expanded its number helicopters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord since the Iraq War. In addition to longstanding Army Reserve and National Guard helicopter units, it also has a Special Operations aviation battalion and an active-duty aviation brigade composed mostly of Apache attack helicopters.
All of those units — as well as an Air Force Special Operations unit and Army drone units — compete for training opportunities at JBLM and at the Yakima Training Center.
The Army in 2010 conducted an environmental impact study when it brought the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade to JBLM, building it from units that had been stationed in Alaska and Texas. The Army misinterpreted that report with the helicopters in early 2012 by instituting off-base helicopter flight routes that took crews over Lacey and Olympia on their way from Gray Army Airfield on JBLM to the aviation training zones on the base.
The Army canceled those routes later that year after an outpouring of complaints from residents, concluding that its environmental impact study did not sanction the off-base flight patterns pilots were using after the brigade arrived in the South Sound.
The new proposal for routes to Southwest Washington could expand training opportunities for the growing aviation units while taking some of the stress off training areas closer to JBLM.