PORTLAND, Maine – A proposal to lower the flight ceiling for noisy fighter jets has dragged on for so long that residents can be forgiven if they've put it out of their minds.
But the Air National Guard is pressing forward with the plan with a goal of submitting a revised environmental impact report this year for the Federal Aviation Administration to consider. Public hearings on the proposal could happen as soon as this summer or fall.
Fighter jet pilots who say the airspace is needed for low-level training have been waiting 14 years for a final answer.
"It's very frustrating for the Guard. We want and we need this to happen," said Jamie Flanders, airspace manager for the Air National Guard.
Critics among the 78,000 people who live in the sparsely populated training area — about 20 people per square mile — want the plan spiked. They say the screeching jets startle people and wildlife, ultimately hurting tourism and real estate values.
"It's terrifying. You'd dive for the bushes for cover as they passed over," said Toni Seger, a vocal critic in North Lovell. "They're supposed to be surprising the enemy. I'm not the enemy. I live here. I pay taxes here."
The proposal is led by the Massachusetts National Guard, whose fighters were first on the scene in New York after 9/11.
The 104th Fighter Wing contends the airspace is needed for training to defend the Northeast. The proposal would essentially drop the flight deck across the 4,000-square-mile Condor Military Operations Area, which is in western Maine and the northern tip of New Hampshire.
Under the proposal, twin-engine F-15 Eagles from Massachusetts and single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcons from Vermont would be allowed to fly as low as 500 feet in those areas.
The proposal would disperse low-level flights over a bigger area instead of concentrating the planes — and noise — along existing, narrow corridors within Condor, Flanders said.
Stealthy F-35 fighters, which are even noisier than the F-15s and F-16s, will stay over 7,000 feet when they go into service with the Vermont National Guard in 2020, he said.
The Air National Guard finalized an environmental impact statement two years ago, but it was rejected because the Air Force didn't feel that it adequately addressed why alternatives including airspace over New Hampshire and New York wouldn't suffice.
After the revised statement is filed, the public would have 30 days to comment. Then, the proposal would go to the FAA, which would hold its own public hearings. It could take the FAA another year or more to make a final decision.
The current effort has faced gubernatorial objections, first from Democratic Gov. John Baldacci in 2009 and then from Republican Gov. Paul LePage two years later.
Flanders said the Air National Guard has gone out of its way to minimize the impact by reaching out to affected parties like the Penobscot Indian Nation, who are landowners with thousands of acres in the area, and also by limiting flights at certain times and avoiding sensitive areas altogether.
"We want to ensure that we impact as few people as possible, if there is an impact at all," he said.
Seger said the problem is that military officials forget that people live in the area.
"The mentality is that, 'People don't really live out here.' When the pilots look down, they see a bunch of trees," she said.