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Command change comes with Davis-Monthan at a crossroads

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base will undergo a change in command in August, even as budget cuts threaten the base’s future.

Col. Kevin Blanchard, commander of the 355th Fighter Wing since August 2012, told a local community-military relations group that he will step down after a regular two-year command rotation.

Command of the 355th — which as D-M’s host unit directs base operations — will be handed over to Col. James P. Meger, who served as D-M’s vice commander from 2011 until he was deployed to Afghanistan for a joint command post in mid-2013.

During D-M’s annual update to the Military Community Relations Committee last week, Blanchard said he plans to retire from the Air Force and move with his family to Alaska, where he was stationed twice.

The committee was formed in 2007 to air community concerns and improve communications. Its membership includes members of the DM50, a group formed to support the base, as well as representatives of neighborhood associations around D-M and members of Tucson Forward, which opposes basing the Air Force’s F-35 Lightning II fighter at D-M because of noise and safety concerns.

During last week’s update, Blanchard said the fate of D-M’s three A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support squadrons remains unclear amid a budget fight over the Air Force’s plan to mothball the A-10 fleet by 2019.

All aircraft operations have declined at D-M in the last two years, he said. Besides the base’s own fighter squadrons, D-M hosts combat-rescue and electronic warfare squadrons as well as F-16s from the Air National Guard 162nd Fighter Wing, which is based at Tucson International Airport.

Blanchard said flight operations dropped from about 60,000 takeoffs and landings in 2011 to about 50,000 in 2012 and 2013, partly because of federal budget sequestration and last fall’s government shutdown. There also have been fewer planes participating in the Air Guard’s Operation Snowbird, a D-M-based training event that typically includes a variety of aircraft from other U.S. and allied units.

In his last appearance before the Military Community Relations Committee, Blanchard addressed a variety of other topics:

OPERATION SNOWBIRD

The Air Force is still working on a final environmental assessment of Operation Snowbird, Blanchard said.

A draft assessment issued in 2012 found “no significant impact” from a plan to expand the program, but its findings and methodology were sharply criticized by Tucson Forward and other people who want to limit the number and kinds of aircraft that participate.

Blanchard said he hopes the final assessment will be released this summer.

Many Tucsonans “want to be able to look at what Operation Snowbird is going to be doing in the future, what types of airplanes, how many sorties, who’s the decision authority — all of those things — and the sooner we get that out for public comment the better,” he said.

CITY OVERFLIGHTS

Resident Jamie French asked Blanchard why D-M aircraft frequently fly outside of flight paths established in documents including a 2004 joint land-use study adopted by the state. She said though she lives eight miles from D-M and not in any established flight path, her house near Grant and First Avenue “shakes like Jell-O” during frequent flyovers.

Blanchard said pilot trainees may not hit assigned flight paths at first but pilots are generally able to keep within a few hundred yards of the paths. He said one exception is when the Federal Aviation Administration — which has overall control of air traffic over Tucson — requires military aircraft to alter course to avoid other planes.

VALLEY COUNCIL

Committee member Mary Terry Schiltz, president of Tucson Forward, asked Blanchard why proceedings of the Davis-Monthan Tucson Valley Council, which is made up of local government officials, are not public.

Blanchard said the group was created last year to allow local officials to discuss issues informally and frankly, largely because he found himself meeting with local officials individually on similar issues including traffic and land matters. Public meetings wouldn’t allow leaders to speak freely, and staffers who attend on behalf of elected officials would be unauthorized to speak, he added.

“We’ve had some pretty good debate and some great discussion in that forum,” Blanchard said. “It’s not meant to replace this body.”

AIRCRAFT SAFETY

Several Tucson Forward members said they objected to flying “high-risk single-engine” planes flying over populated areas. They cited the lack of backup power to land safely and mentioned crashes including a 1978 crash of a single-engine A-7D Corsair fighter jet near the University of Arizona that killed two residents.

“It doesn’t happen often, but it kills people,” said committee member Robin Gomez, a longtime critic of D-M operations and representative of the Colonia Solana Neighborhood Association.

Blanchard defended the safety record of military jets, noting that the single-engine F-16’s “mishap rate” is about one-quarter that of civilian aircraft, about the same as commuter airlines and about half of that of major airlines.

“It’s such a minuscule number that we as a nation — and it’s not with fighter jets, it’s with aviation in general — have accepted that risk,” he said, noting that airliners full of fuel and passengers constantly fly in and out of urban airports like Phoenix Sky Harbor International.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

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