The public has until August 23 to comment on the latest draft environmental assessment for the Army’s plan to do high altitude helicopter training over Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
The Army hopes to get State Land Board approval in September to be able to conduct the training on six landing zones on the mountains in October, before it has to ship its nearly 100 helicopters to Afghanistan in November. Training would include 90 pilots, out of 260 who will be deployed to Afghanistan. So far, 11 pilots have trained around Pohakuloa Training Area to study noise and ground effects. Because of delays in granting permits, some of the other pilots have been shipped to Colorado for training. The Army says the delays in granting the permits, requiring moving some of the training to Colorado, is costing $8 million. Eight Black Hawk helicopters were shipped to Fort Carson, Colorado for the training. The Army says they’ll have to also ship 14 more Black Hawks and three CH-47 Chinook tandem-rotor helicopters.
Similar training was conducted on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in 2003, 2004, and 2006. They say helicopter crews are frustrated over current delays, especially because if they’re sent to Colorado for training, they will be away from their home and families for up to 45 additional days before the deployment.
Hawaii Island resident Hanalei Fergerstrom is strongly opposed to the training. He says he’s a Hawaiian religious practitioner, and not happy with the Army’s plan to fly helicopters in his temple. The Sierra Club’s Moku Loa Group has objected to the plan, saying the helicopters will fly over the only designated critical habitat for the endangered palila bird. The Army said it has established a 2,000-foot flight altitude to protect the palila. The Army’s initial environmental assessment was issued last December, with intent to do training from February to August. They acknowledged the assessment was incomplete so have redone it.
The Mauna Kea landing zones are around two to three miles from the summit and the observatories. The Mauna Loa landing zones are around six to eight miles from the summit of Mauna Loa and its observatory. The current environmental assessment says environmental impacts are less than significant, with vegetation around the landing zones being sparse to absent.