A Schofield Barracks aviation brigade deploying to southern Afghanistan with 2,600 Hawaii soldiers and 95 helicopters has been unable to conduct high-altitude training on the Big Island because of an inadequate Army environmental assessment, officials said.
The delay has put the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade in a time and money crunch.
The high-altitude flights are not only required by the Army, but also represent “very important lifesaving training,” said Col. Frank Tate, brigade commander.
Helicopters frequently deliver combat soldiers to high-altitude locations in Afghanistan, where aerodynamics and terrain make flying extra challenging.
“All of the lives of those soldiers, not only in the air crew but certainly riding in the back, depend on the proficiency of these air crews coming from Hawaii, showing up in Afghanistan and, on day one when they arrive, being able to safely insert and/or extract those people off those kinds of mountaintops,” Tate said.
The Army needs a conservation district use permit from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to use six pre-existing landing zones high on the slopes on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
Absent that permit, Tate said he’s had to send about 30 pilots to Colorado for training, and that number is likely to increase.
Initially the plan was for the brigade to train on the Big Island from February to August, then begin loading up the helicopters and other equipment in October. The soldiers themselves are expected to start leaving after Christmas.
The delay is “a significant problem for us,” said Tate. “We are very concerned, obviously, about the community’s concerns — which is why we’re going through all the extra steps to make sure that we address those concerns. But in the meantime … the clock is ticking.”
For a large-scale training on the mainland, the cost would easily climb into the millions of dollars. Shipping the entire brigade to the mainland for the training would be in the tens of millions. Tate said his biggest concern is the extra time spent away from families ahead of a yearlong deployment.
The first environmental assessment, which was 160 pages long and cost more than $300,000, was met with widespread community criticism and concern when it was released in December.
“The problem with the first EA is that it was very poorly done,” said Ron Terry, a member of the Mauna Kea Management Board. “It did not describe the action very well, and it did not describe the environment well.”
The Idaho- and Virginia-based companies that produced the study “didn’t consult with anybody over here,” Terry said. “You’d think if you are doing something on Mauna Kea near the summit, that you would talk to the people who manage the summit.”
The Army said in January it was taking “full responsibility for what’s being called ‘miscommunication,’” and looked forward to “clearing up any confusion that it may have caused.”
The Army said it has since consulted with community groups on the proposed training, specifically the Waimea Rotary on Jan. 5, the Pohakuloa Training Area Community Advisory Council on Jan. 14, the Office of Mauna Kea Management on Jan. 25, Mauna Kea Neighbors on Feb. 3, the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board on Feb. 8, the Hawaii Leeward Planning Conference on Feb. 23 and Kahu Ku Mauna (Guardians of the Mountain) on Feb. 25.
It also conducted high-altitude training March 21 through April 1 on a state special-use permit to further study noise and the ground effects of the flights.
“I feel that now they are trying to do a good job (on the environmental assessment), but we really have to see that process through,” Terry said Friday.
DLNR Director William Aila Jr. said Friday he is hopeful the new contractor for the environmental assessment “will address the native Hawaiian community’s concerns as well as the general public’s concerns about the (high-altitude) activity and its impacts on the area.”
Aila added, “We hope that the Army has learned from this experience as well as past experiences and has some institutional memory that considers local knowledge.”
About 260 UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook pilots need to undergo high-altitude training, which involves touching down repeatedly and briefly on a variety of landscapes, including slopes and pinnacles at six landing zones between 7,889 feet and 11,539 feet on the Big Island mountains.
The brigade conducted the same training on the Big Island in 2003, 2004 and 2006 prior to Afghanistan deployments on individual permits.
The Army now hopes to conduct the flights annually and increase the aviation training hours at Pohakuloa Training Area to 6,000 from 4,500 per year.
As a result of the change, the Army said it undertook the environmental assessment and plans to complete a separate assessment for its long-range high-altitude plans.
The Army admits that the first environmental study might have given the incorrect impression that it was adding 38,000 acres to its training area and would limit access for hikers and hunters.
“None of that is accurate,” said Tate, the brigade commander. The intent was to show airspace to be used.
Terry, the Mauna Kea board member, said his understanding now from the Army is that there will be no access restrictions. “They told me that if someone is having a picnic on one of their landing sites, they’ll go to another one,” he said.
Tate said no more than two helicopters typically would be seen at the Mauna Kea landing zones at once, and no more than three at once on Mauna Loa. The landing zones are 150 by 150 feet.
Three-week training blocks are being sought that would include high-altitude flying 10 hours a day on weekdays only, he said.
Officials also said the recent studies show that noise and dust are not factors at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve near the observatories and main cultural sites. The closest landing zone to the telescopes is four miles away, and the landing zones are mostly cinder rock, the Army said.
The Army noted 16,000 civilian helicopter flights passed along Mauna Kea last year, but Terry said, “We’re talking about the summit area of Mauna Kea and just below the summit, the ridge, and there are no tour helicopters up there.”
A new environmental assessment is due out in a few weeks, with public comment from late April to late May, the Army said. A decision by the state Land Board on a conservation district permit could come in June, officials said.
Terry said he’s “preliminarily optimistic” there would be no severe impacts in the center part of the 11,288-acre science reserve, but he added, “I want to see their (the Army’s) data.”