PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - The newest fighter jets that have been the subject of noise complaints across the country won't be flying low over the hills of western Maine under the National Guard's proposal to increase the amount of training area for ground-hugging flights, official said Thursday.
The National Guard's request to double the amount of airspace for low-level training over western Maine has dragged on for so long that the Vermont National Guard has received approval for cutting-edge aircraft that weren't contemplated when the process began eight years ago.
But the stealthy F-35 fighters, which are noisier than the jets they're replacing, won't train at low altitudes in Maine. When they arrive in 2020, Vermont's F-35s will be restricted to higher altitudes - no lower than 7,000 feet above sea level - where noise is less of an issue, said Landon Jones, a National Guard airspace manager who's working on the proposal.
The F-35's engine produces more noise than F-15 and F-16 fighters from National Guard units in Massachusetts and Vermont, which currently fly as low as 500 feet in narrow corridors within the 4,000-square-mile Condor Military Operation Area over western Maine and a sliver of northern New Hampshire.
The Massachusetts Air National Guard, whose fighters were first on the scene in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, proposed to increase the amount of area for low-level flights for more realistic homeland defense training.
The Massachusetts-based, twin-engine F-15 fighters need more space than the smaller, single-engine F-16s from Vermont, which usually train over upstate New York but sometimes travel to Maine.
The Air National Guard is continuing to reach out to various groups, including the Penobscot Indian Nation, which owns 20,000 acres of land in the region, and hopes to complete a final environmental impact statement this fall, Jones said. After that, the Federal Aviation Administration will get the final say, and that process could take several more years, he said.
The National Guard had a similar proposal in 1992, but it was withdrawn under pressure from local residents and then-Gov. John McKernan.
The current effort has again faced gubernatorial objections, first from Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and then from Republican Gov. Paul LePage. LePage told the National Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 that the expanded training area is a "want, not a need."
Jones, a former pilot, disagreed with the governor's assessment, saying the F-15 fighters need more airspace for maneuvering.
By spreading the maneuvers over a wider area, the noise will be dispersed instead of limited to existing corridors, or lanes, that are used for low-level flights. And the number of low-level sorties will be reduced once the Vermont National Guard switches from F-16s to F-35s, he said.