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Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U. S. Air Forces in Europe, and Roger Lewentz, of the Ministry of the Interior of Rheinland-Pfalz, talk about flying procedures out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany, during a distinguished-visitor flight Tuesday.
Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U. S. Air Forces in Europe, and Roger Lewentz, of the Ministry of the Interior of Rheinland-Pfalz, talk about flying procedures out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany, during a distinguished-visitor flight Tuesday. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — It doesn’t take long for planes taking off from this base west of the city of Kaiserslautern to fly over or near the homes and villages that surround Europe’s largest U.S. military airlift hub.

Trying to avoid flying over one village can sometimes lead pilots to fly over another cluster of homes and then another. The result can be a flurry of noise complaints from residents on the ground.

The Air Force has implemented new guidelines and procedures in the past year to reduce the noise, but military officials say it can be difficult, especially if strong easterly winds or bad weather come into play.

Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, took German civic leaders aboard a C-40 flight Tuesday to show them the challenges that pilots face and the efforts commanders have made to cut the amount of noise to surrounding communities.

“But I really wanted to take the opportunity to listen to our political leaders here so they can tell us what they think,” Hobbins said after the flight. “And, I think, they had the opportunity to do that, and clearly they understand that in an airplane, the environment is pretty quick and so you’re making decisions in seconds.”

The group included state, county and city leaders. German reporters also came along for the ride.

Noise around the base is not a new issue. Residents have complained about the din of military aircraft as long as the base has existed. But when Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt closed in 2005 and Ramstein absorbed three-quarters of those flights, the grumbling spiked.

In September 2005, the base received 685 complaints for that month, prompting commanders to see if they could do anything to reduce the noise to the area. Brig. Gen. Rich Johnston, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing and the Kaiserslautern military community, implemented changes last March after studying the issue. Having pilots fly a more northerly route after taking off to the west is one of the biggest changes.

So far, complaints have decreased. Last year, the base received 385 noise complaints. However, 165 of them came from just two residents, according to the Air Force.

German politicians often are caught in the middle between the U.S. military, the area’s largest employer, and their constituents.

Pilots flew the group on the route currently used by pilots so that the civic leaders could see the difference for themselves.

Some of the politicians commented on how flying above their villages gave them a new perspective on the issue.

Frank Matheis, a Kaiserslautern County administrator, said flying the routes as opposed to looking at them on a map helped him see how the pilots operate.

“In the airplane, things are going very quickly,” he said through an interpreter after the flight. “The pilots are really cooperative and display good will.”

Hobbins also told the politicians how the 2009 arrival of the new C-130J Hercules tactical transport plane, which is designed to be quieter than the current models used by the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein, should also help reduce noise. He said he hoped the visitors would take their experience back to their communities and explain the efforts being made to reduce noise.

Hans-Dieter Becker, the mayor of Hütschenhausen village, said the changes in procedures by U.S. military pilots won’t eliminate the noise complaints in his town, but an open dialogue between the American commanders and the area communities can help alleviate the problem.

“There is some good in this,” he said. “We’re on the right way.”

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