US military looks to discuss special use airspace further

Layer upon layer of military operated airspace is needed over Tinian for the U.S. military to conduct its envisioned live-fire training on the island, but according to the Marine Corps Forces Pacific, impacts to existing commercial flight routes have been noted and will be discussed with local carrier Star Marianas and other stakeholders this week.

In an interview last Thursday, MARFORPAC executive director Craig Whelden said they would brief a number of groups on the CNMI Joint Military Training draft environmental impact statement, which details among others, their plans for restricted or special use airspace over Tinian. They aim to meet with Commonwealth Ports Authority and Star Marianas officials early this week.

“The draft EIS has concluded that coming down from Saipan and moving along the east side of Tinian to the airport is the way to do it when we have live-fire ongoing,” Whelden said.

When asked, he acknowledged that the alternate route would extend flight time.  “There could be an increased cost as a result, but that’s part of the discussion,” he said.

He assured, though, that when live-fire training is not ongoing, commercial craft could take the same route they currently use. “When we cease fire we can shut everything down… to allow the aircraft to go through and start firing again,” he said.

Star Marianas president Shaun Christian earlier told Saipan Tribune that restricted airspace was not “realistically feasible,” given the distance between Saipan and Tinian and the type of aircraft that are economically efficient for this distance. He said shutting airspace down would increase transportation times and drive up costs for customers.

In an interview yesterday, Christian said a contractor for the draft EIS called late last week, asking them to meet with MARFORPAC.

An agenda for the meeting was not given, he said, when asked what he’d like to discuss.

Nevertheless, he indicated the meeting is scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday.

“We are still concerned,” Christian said yesterday.

Airspace needed

The draft EIS describes two types of special use airspace: “restricted areas” and a “military operations area.” The areas extend over the coastline and thousands of feet into the air.

On top of the military operations area would lay an Air Traffic Control Assigned Airspace, which accommodates weapon system that could be hazardous to aircraft. This space would be on an “as-needed” basis.

Restricted areas start from the surface to 18,000 feet mean sea level, or MSL. The military operations area would start at 3,000 feet MSL and stop at an altitude up to but not including 18,000 feet. On top of this, the Air Traffic Control airspace extends from a floor of 18,000 feet MSL to 30,000 feet above MSL.

There are eight proposed restricted areas. Live-fire training would “turn on” or activate some or all of these areas. Civilian craft would be prohibited from entering until cleared by the military.

The draft EIS notes that some of these restricted areas would be used daily from 7am to 10pm for up to 140 days per year, except during Saipan International Airport jetliner activity.

The draft EIS lists fighter, transport tilt-rotor, transport rotary-wing, attack helicopter, and transport fix wing aircraft, and unmanned aerial systems activity. Annual operations total 7,730 hours, from 7am to 10pm.  For the rest of the day, it totals 1,830.

Without the special use airspace, which the Federal Aviation Administration would grant, only small arms training could begin on Tinian, no live-fire.

But it’s unclear right now where the FAA is at on this rule making, which would amend existing rules that prevent restricted airspace near commercial airports. FAA representatives are set to be on island this week, it was learned.

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Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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