Joint Base Lewis-McChord commanders broke federal law when they allowed new-arriving helicopter crews to fly regular routes over civilian communities last year. They failed to follow requirements to reach out to neighbors and study the full impacts of the noisy, after-hours training.
In interviews with The News Tribune, leaders at the base south of Tacoma say their actions were inadvertent. It took a flood of public complaints and consultation with attorneys before they realized they had violated federal environmental laws.
“We found out after (that) we were wrong,” said 7th Infantry Division Deputy Commander Col. William Gayler.
They acknowledge they were rushing to plan safe training routes ahead of a major expansion of the base’s airpower — about 40 choppers added to its fleet of about 100, capping eight years during which the base’s helicopter strength has nearly tripled.
They made the mistake at a time when helicopter safety was in the spotlight after a December 2011 crash on the base killed four Army aviators.
To make flying safer for air crews, Army leaders authorized off-base routes in the summer and fall of 2012. In so doing, they jeopardized relations with civilian residents who weren’t consulted about flight patterns over their homes.
Documents obtained by The News Tribune show that some officials were aware that neighbors should be contacted beforehand. Inexplicably, it never happened.
Lewis-McChord has since gone back to the drawing board. It’s working on a full environmental impact study on permanent off-base routes. The study will be available to the public this fall, and officers promise a robust public process including open hearings.
But some neighbors say they remain frustrated by helicopters flying too low, too late, too loud and too often. Some training exercises have continued in 2013 on nonstandard routes that do not require environmental studies.
“One of the really difficult things of this was our complete loss of faith in the military here,” said Izeekiel Lundsten, a Lacey resident of 19 years.
‘HIGH CHANCE’ OF ACCIDENT
When the Army announced in March 2011 that Lewis-McChord would be the new home for the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, it compelled the most significant changes in how helicopters maneuver in and out of the base’s air space in at least two decades.
As the aviation brigade headquarters prepared to relocate from Alaska, its leaders pushed for safety measures.
“If we can’t get a handle on this by the time the (new helicopters arrive in 2012), there’s a high chance of an aviation accident,” Col. Robert Dickerson, the base’s then-top aviation officer, was quoted as saying at a planning meeting on Dec. 2, 2011. The meeting minutes were included among hundreds of pages of documents obtained by The News Tribune through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Dickerson’s words proved prophetic.
Nine days later, two small Kiowa helicopters crashed in an aviation training area near Lacey, killing four pilots. The crash happened well before the Army had a chance to implement the safety improvements Dickerson’s team wanted.
The crash was a tragic coincidence. The Kiowas had been stationed at Lewis-McChord for several years. They went down five months before the first new helicopter would land at Lewis-McChord.
But base officials acknowledge it “sped up” adoption of new flight operation rules, known in military shorthand as 95-1 for the specific section of Army regulations.
The safety measures include the creation of off-base air routes to ease pressure on Lewis-McChord airspace.
Affected residents were given no notice about the changes and no opportunity to comment on them.
Only after South Sound residents flooded the installation with complaints last summer did commanders learn from base lawyers that an Army study they thought covered off-base routes actually did not sanction them.
“The noise complaints coming in here forced us to look at what we were doing and … that’s when the legal guys came back and said, ‘You know, this is not kosher,’” Col. Charles Hodges, Lewis-McChord’s garrison commander, told The News Tribune. Hodges started the job as the noise complaints reached their peak in the summer of 2012.
Breaking the law was unintentional, officers say, born of confusion over the authority of a 2011 environmental review that looked at the impacts of bringing the aviation brigade to Lewis-McChord.
“We thought we were covered,” said Robert Rodriguez, the base’s top civilian aviation officer. “And when we dug into it deeper, we realized we weren’t.”
‘WE’RE NOT LEGAL’
What followed was a public relations debacle for a base that often promotes itself as a good neighbor. It has had to manage the most significant community uproar since Lewis-McChord began its growth spurt a decade ago to meet the demands of the nation’s war footing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After numerous changes that reduced but didn’t eliminate the complaints, the Army finally reversed its decision. Hodges ordered helicopters pulled back on base last fall after concluding “we’re not legal.”
It’s now adopting several changes recommended by investigators after the Kiowa crash. New off-base routes would round out the Army’s needed safety and training improvements, officers say.
“Our goal now is to continue to make Joint Base Lewis-McChord the safest training zone it can be, and, frankly, we want it to be the best in the Army,” said Gayler, whose 7th Infantry Division oversees the aviation brigade.
Yet the Army is struggling to apply the lessons from that initial mistake in communication with neighboring communities.
During the first part of this year, the base received noise complaints from residents living in Lacey, Steilacoom and on Anderson Island. Aviators were flying in preparation for the arrival of new models of Apaches and Black Hawks, and they had to make contact with beacons placed at various airports.
They were not flying standard routes, so the Army did not notify the communities. The military is not required to produce an environmental study for those flights any more than a civilian pilot would for a one-time trip to a civilian airport.
Base officials say helicopter traffic has tapered off and will not return to that level now that pilots have completed the assignment.
Even so, mistrust lingers among residents who didn’t see the helicopters coming and still feel startled by them.
Lundsten lost sleep last summer when pilots first started using the new routes and again in May and June of this year when the helicopters flew over her home for several weeks of drills. They exhaust her, she says.
“We support our bases. It’s an important part of our area,” she said. “But it was such a feeling of helplessness. It was such a feeling of being invaded. It disrupted my life terribly.”
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, said in a statement that his office has fielded complaints from residents about the helicopter noise over the past few months. City managers in Lacey and Olympia heard from a few residents, too, earlier this year.
“While some level of noise pollution is a fact of life when living near a large military installation, I believe Joint Base Lewis-McChord can do a better job when possible to proactively communicate information about training flights to the general public,” Heck said.
Last year’s arrival of the combat aviation brigade was widely celebrated in the Puget Sound military community.
It gave local ground forces more opportunities to train with air units that often support them in war zones. And it further secured Lewis-McChord as the West Coast’s largest base, giving it new influence in a high-demand segment of the armed forces.
The base would get the headquarters for the 16th CAB, taking that slot for a full colonel from Fort Wainwright in Alaska. It picked up an Apache helicopter battalion with its Hellfire missiles and other heavy firepower from Fort Hood in Texas.
“Joint Base Lewis-McChord is one of the most important bases on the West Coast, and this fills out its training ability,” then-U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, said at the time.
Even today in a time of Army cutbacks, Lewis-McChord’s aviation units are said to be safe from downsizing, according to senior Army commanders. The mission is deemed so essential that while other Army installations are facing cuts, Lewis-McChord is getting $144 million in construction funds to upgrade the airfield.
“JBLM is strategic and critical not only to the community but to our Army and the nation’s defense. Aviation is a part of that,” Gayler said.
Airpower has returned to an installation where about 300 helicopters were stationed in the 1960s-80s. At that time, however, Pierce and Thurston counties had about 400,000 fewer residents than they do today, state population figures show.
Dickerson, the aviation brigade’s first commander at Lewis-McChord, arrived in August 2011. He and the base’s civilian aviation experts began laying plans for how aviators would get safe and sufficient training time once the additional helicopters started showing up in May 2012.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Training space was tight for the fighting force on the ground, but even more so in the air because Army helicopters had to stay away from the airspace for McChord Air Field and neighboring civilian airports.
They also had to balance requests from the base’s drone pilots, Reserve and National Guard pilots, a battalion from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and several units from within the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.
The fixes Dickerson and other aviation officers wanted in December 2011 included:
“We basically needed to expand off-post,” said Dickerson, who has since completed his two-year assignment as brigade commander. He spoke to The News Tribune in a June interview.
He pushed hard for the changes as base officials were in the midst of drafting new 95-1 regulations to manage the arriving helicopters.
At the Dec. 2, 2011, meeting, a brigade official was quoted as saying the current regulations are “too restrictive to allow them to meet … training objectives,” according to an email obtained by The News Tribune. He or another individual stated they would go up the chain of command “if 16th CAB doesn’t get what it needs.”
CRASH SPEEDS THINGS UP
The fatal crash on Dec. 11, 2011, drew more attention to the aviation brigade’s safety requests, even though the accident took place months before the new helicopters would land here.
It also raised hard questions from local chopper crews.
An accident investigation, conducted by an aviation brigade officer, cited other near-misses between pilots, and it quoted several veteran soldiers expressing concerns about the growing number of helicopters at the base.
“We need more off-site landing areas and (we need to) expand the training/maneuver area with the new density of aircraft coming to JBLM,” one chief warrant officer 3 said.
Off-base air routes would have been established even if the crash hadn’t occurred. But Army officials acknowledge it put them on the fast track.
“The crash sped it up because then everyone started looking, ‘Well, let’s try to make this safer, let’s try to establish some more routes off the installation,’” Rodriguez said.
The News Tribune obtained a PowerPoint presentation dated Jan. 12, 2012, a month after the crash, noting that the 16th CAB had developed a “concept route structure” and “JBLM 95-1 will be amended in a rapid manner to provide the regulatory procedures.” The proposed route map is similar to the final one, which aviators began flying in July 2012.
The two one-way U-shaped routes veered into Thurston County. The first counter-clockwise “blue” route passed over Yelm and Lake St. Clair, while the second clockwise “red” path went out farther and directed helicopters over a group of lakes in and near Lacey and close to the city of Rainier before turning them north.
Officers believed they had authorization to create these regular off-base routes because the Army had completed a 2011 growth study into the expansion of the aviation brigade at Lewis-McChord.
The study appeared to consider how pilots could minimize disruptions they might cause flying over the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and tribal land in Thurston County. But it did not look at other routes.
The study’s purpose was to look at how adding 1,400 soldiers and 44 aircraft to Lewis-McChord would impact surrounding communities, not on spelling out where the aviation brigade would train.
A February 2012 email suggests that officials were aware of the need to let neighboring communities know of the major changes. The air traffic control chief wrote that he’d print a new map once it was finalized and send it to public works so an unidentified official “can start talking to the local communities.”
That never happened.
Rodriguez said he didn’t recall any discussions within the working group of notifying communities. Joe Piek, a garrison spokesman, said the public affairs office became aware of the routes only when it started getting phone calls from neighbors.
In the end, it remains a mystery why the surrounding communities weren’t notified. The base hasn’t released to The News Tribune hundreds of additional pages of documents that its Freedom of Information Act officer said are under legal review. The newspaper submitted its records request in September and didn’t receive its first batch of records until May.
Col. Thomas Brittain, the base’s former garrison commander, gave interim approval to the new flight operation rules on June 5, 2012. A process that typically can take more than a year was wrapped up in several months, Rodriguez said.
Reactions from residents were swift the following month as aviators began familiarizing themselves with the new routes. More than 130 individuals filed complaints.
The complaints drew the attention and concern of a base lawyer who was contacted by a public affairs official. In a July 30, 2012, email, the chief wrote that he received a call from a base lawyer questioning whether an environmental study was conducted before aviators began flying the routes and concluding “she doesn’t think PW (public works) did any kind of (environmental study) on these routes.”
The following day, Brittain decided to raise the flight altitude over populated areas. Hodges, who took over early August, announced in September that helicopters would avoid populated urban areas altogether. Then, in October, he ordered helicopters to pull back to the base until the required study was finished.
One email obtained by the newspaper makes clear that the disruption on neighboring residents wasn’t completely unexpected.
On July 11, a public affairs official contacted Gray Army Airfield about noise complaints. The airfield official identified the offending helicopter as using the new routes and concluded to the air traffic control chief, “I expect the frequency of overflight and the resultant noise complaints will rise rapidly as the new routes are implemented.”
To which the chief chimed in: “That didn’t take long.”
‘THEY TERRORIZED MY CITY’
Complaints have continued to trickle in this year as Lewis-McChord aviators began fielding the latest versions of the Apache attack and Black Hawk transport helicopters.
Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas took one such complaint from a town resident in recent weeks during what appeared to be an evening exercise that lasted two days. He called Hodges, who explained the situation.
Lucas said he would like more advance notice so town officials could alert residents of significant training exercises. But he understands that knowing “the specific flight plan of every single helicopter is a little bit more than a community would need, in my opinion.”
Base officials say giving advance warning is difficult because many factors, primarily weather, can change flight plans in short order.
Piek, the base spokesman, said officials are working with the aviation units to help better inform communities in advance “because that not only alleviates the complaints, but it also alleviates a lot of curiosity because people will know what to expect.”
That didn’t happen before July 11 when four Chinooks and several Black Hawks flew late-night training exercises over Port Angeles, generating dozens of 911 calls from concerned residents and drawing national headlines.
Mayor Cherie Kidd told a local newspaper the Army “terrorized my city,” and Hodges decided to make a trip up the Olympic Peninsula to apologize in person at a July 11 City Council meeting.
Maj. Emily Potter, spokeswoman for the Army Special Operations Aviation Command, which the 160th SOAR falls under, said the training on the Olympic Peninsula wasn’t related to the increased air traffic at Lewis-McChord. Instead, she said, it’s important for aviators to train in unfamiliar environments not too far from the base.
Hodges in his personal apology to the city acknowledged the base didn’t do the public notification “it normally would do.”
Around Lewis-McChord, he continued, “we talk to folks and let them know what’s going on. … We do a good job of notifying.”
Hodges pledged to do better and delivered on that promise when local officials were notified of an exercise south of Port Townsend that took place July 25 and 26.
At least one resident said the colonel’s olive branch was unnecessary.
“You do not owe us an apology; we owe you our deepest heartfelt thanks,” Port Angeles resident Robert Summers was quoted as saying by the Peninsula Daily News.
Back at Lewis-McChord, frequent exercises connecting ground troops with pilots from the new aviation brigade illustrate why the Army wanted to build up its helicopter force in the South Sound in the first place.
Soldiers in the air and on the ground interact constantly in war zones, whether they’re moving troops to forward positions or collaborating on enemy attacks. However, until the 16th CAB arrived last year, they rarely had a chance to train together at home.
Last month, a group of about 40 infantrymen, artillerymen, cavalry scouts and combat engineers practiced attaching cargo loads to the bottom of a Black Hawk while it was in the air.
They were training to become so-called sling load inspectors — soldiers who ensure cargo is safely packaged for helicopters to pick up. It’s an important job at remote bases overseas.
The ground soldiers used their cellphones to film their peers running under helicopters to link heavy loads to the aircraft overhead.
“Awesome,” a few of them said as the Black Hawk hovered over a field of dry grass and lifted off with a Humvee attached to its belly.
“This is only the third time in my career where we’ve done exercises with live helicopters,” said Sgt. Charles Cheesman, 24, of Lewis-McChord’s 555th Engineer Brigade.
Pilots were just as excited to practice with their partners on the ground.
“The more time we can get with ground forces makes training better for them and for us,” one aviator said.