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ANSBACH, Germany — Helicopter lights shining through people’s windows, aircraft cruising low over rural towns and late-night training stirring people from their sleep are just some of the issues residents say they have with the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade.

Complaints have increased considerably since the unit resumed flying operations in January following a deployment to Iraq. In fact, the number of complaints lodged most months in 2009 have exceeded the number filed in all of 2008, according to figures provided by the Army.

"I watched the helicopters coming as low as the trees and then hovering in the air for nearly 30 minutes," said Hansjoerg Meyer, a retired preacher who belongs to a grass-roots group opposed to the helicopters.

The group, which held protests recently in Ansbach, has doubled in size to 122 members in the last year, Meyer said. The group’s name is Etz Langt’s, which is regional German slang for "it is enough."

But brigade officials contend they are sensitive to residents’ concerns, pointing out that they fly well within German air force rules, and they try to work with them to resolve complaints.

Because the sun sets much later during the late spring and summer months, training guidelines allow flights until 1:30 a.m. on the weekends in May and August, and until 2 a.m. in June and July. The late-night flying is essential to train pilots to fly using night-vision goggles, according to deputy brigade commander Col. Richard Crogan.

Some 70,000 people live in Ansbach and the surrounding communities.

Since January, nearly 2,900 complaints have been filed to the Army, after only 189 complaints in all of 2008.

The numbers are skewed, however, because 70 percent of the complaints appeared to have been filed by the same three or four people, according to Army records. Still, when you subtract that small handful of residents, 95 people filed 164 noise complaints in April, and 43 people filed 380 complaints in June.

Klaus Schmidt, a retired U.S. Army civilian employee who lives in Markt Erlbach, near Ansbach, has been logging instances of helicopters disrupting his life since 2006. He’s particularly concerned with the late flying hours.

"I cannot find sleep since the helicopters are airborne all the time," said Schmidt, who claims the Army does not take him seriously.

He said that Crogan, the deputy commander, suggested that he take sleeping aids. And he said the post’s noise abatement specialist, Helga Moser, hangs up on him.

Crogan said he may have made that suggestion for sleeping pills, but he did not remember. Crogan and Moser both said they have tried to work with Schmidt, and they even offered to sit down to talk to him. The two sides have tried to meet unsuccessfully for a few years, and Schmidt said he rejected the latest offer because of conditions attached — that he come alone and not bring any media.

Moser said complaints regarding helicopter noise have increased since January, but the bulk of those complaints are coming from a handful of residents. Schmidt argued that people don’t complain because they don’t believe it has any effect.

But Moser refuted Schmidt’s claim, saying "We take every citizen who is calling us serious and we deal with his concern."

Moser said residents can also call the German air force office in Cologne. Complaints are investigated by the Luftwaffe, which notifies the U.S. Army about complaints it believes has merit, Crogan said. The Army’s chain of command takes whatever action it deems appropriate for violations, Crogan added.

The same flight restrictions have been in place since the Cold War at Ansbach, said Ted Tomczyk, air field manager and a former AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot. Violations include flying over towns with populations of 100,000 or more without the German air force’s approval and flying later than allowed.

"There have been no legal violations, according to the German air force," said Moser.

German officials did not respond to Stars and Stripes’ requests for details regarding the number of complaints.

Other regions in Germany have been able to resolve noise problems.

In Landstuhl, for example, German officials and the Army reached an agreement recently that prohibits helicopters from Company C, 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment to fly in the area after midnight.

"A number of people complained about the helicopters which often used to fly around until 3 in the morning," Landstuhl Deputy Mayor Peter Degenhardt said.

Said Tomczyk: "The U.S. military has always been sensitive or worked with local communities on noise abatement."

While some residents would be satisfied with the Army tweaking its operations in Ansbach, others such as Ansbach city councilmember Boris-André Meyer wants the Army to pull out completely.

"We think the solution is the withdrawal of all helicopters from Ansbach. ... I think the solution is to train in the U.S.," Meyer said.

But not every politician is up in arms about the flights.

Hans Popp, mayor of Merkendorf, near Ansbach, said the complainers are a minority.

"We in Merkendorf cannot say that there is a noise problem caused by helicopters," he said. "Beside that we should consider: If the Americans leave, the market for real estate would most likely collapse. The Americans living here are definitely an important economic factor."

The Army estimates that it generates 80 million euros a year for the area, and the brigade employs 380 Germans.

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