YOU DON’T KNOW THEY are there, then suddenly there’s a horrible roar, your vehicle starts shaking, and you almost lose control.” Charles Bergmann, the director of a Fort Davis ambulance company, was recalling the four or five times in the past few years that his ambulances have been buzzed by low-flying military jets. Luckily, no one was hurt, but those incidents were on his mind because—if the United States Air Force does what it plans to—he and every inhabitant of the highest, lonesomest part of Texas can expect a lot more unwanted airborne guests.
In June and July officials at Holloman Air Force Base—where pilots of the German Air Force have trained since 1992—held a series of meetings to explain to stunned residents of West Texas and New Mexico that German Tornados and other aircraft would likely be flying training missions in a vast figure eight stretching from the westernmost corner of Texas nearly to Big Bend. The planes would not fly close to cities or state or national parks, but the area in general could expect flights as low as one hundred feet above ground level two to three times a day, possibly by next spring.
The locals were first incredulous, then incensed. Other air bases already used the Trans-Pecos for training (though infrequently), and many people had experienced close encounters of the jet-propelled kind. Persimmon Gap Ranch owner Ben Love told of coming within three seconds of being creamed by a low-flying F-4 while landing his single-engine plane. Everyone remembered that in 1992 a B-1B bomber had smashed into a mountain near Valentine. The Border Patrol was particularly concerned because its planes fly low and slow tracking aliens. Not only that, but it estimated that if its operations were cut back for safety reasons, an additional $3.24 million worth of drugs could enter the U.S. in the next five years. (In August the Air Force and the Border Patrol met to discuss route modifications.)
But if collisions were a potential threat to fliers, the noise could disturb everyone. The sound of a jet flying an average of 515 miles an hour 100 feet overhead measures 112 decibels, equivalent to the shriek of a circular saw one foot from your ear. Holloman spokesman Captain Larry Cox explained that the loudest noise would last only one to two seconds and that any given spot was likely to be flown over only once every three weeks. But the locals weren’t buying it. Once would be enough to make cattle stampede or spook a horse (a cowboy at Tom Beard’s Leoncita Cattle Company was thrown and injured during a flyover several years ago). Businessmen were also worried about spooking tourists and hunters, who come to bag exotic game, and if that money evaporated, the Trans-Pecos would be higher and drier than it already is.
Despite the protests, the missions seem likely to happen because the pilots and planes are in place and the draft of an environmental assessment predicted the flights would have no significant impact. It looks like the region—beautiful but poor and politically powerless—is getting dumped on again: Sewer sludge from New York is being spread on farmland ninety miles from El Paso, nuclear waste might soon be stored in the area, and now this. If nothing is done, the serenity that is the soul of West Texas could be coming to an end—not with a whimper, but a bang.