Community learns more about pilot training center planned for Fort Smith

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,121 views 

An F-16 flown by the Singapore Air Force.

At the first of two scheduled virtual public scoping meetings concerning the Air Force’s proposal to put a permanent Foreign Military Sales Pilot Training Center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, area residents voiced their support and concerns for the mission.

The base was selected last year as the Air Force’s top pick for a long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. It is estimated that 345 U.S. military personnel will be part of the center along with an estimated 180-plus members of the Singapore unit and around 300 dependents. Training and aircraft from Finland and Poland may also be part of the FMS site in the future.

The proposed program would establish a pilot training center to accommodate up to 24 foreign F-35 aircraft at one time and the relocation of 12 Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 aircraft from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. It would also develop necessary infrastructure to support the F-16 and F-35 planes and provide flight training, said Patrick Jeanes, proponent lead from Air Education and Training Command, during the Zoom webinar Tuesday night (Feb. 1).

Ebbing is the preferred location for the training center, but the Air Force has chosen Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan as the first alternative if the center cannot come to Fort Smith.

Because Federal law requires agencies to identify and consider the environmental consequences of implementing proposals, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be prepared for the center. That statement will look at noise, air quality, compatible land use, environmental justice, airspace use and management, biological resources, cultural resources, hazardous materials and solid wastes, health and safety, physical resources, socioeconomics and transportation, said David Martin, Environmental Impact Statement Project Manager from Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

The EIS preparation is in the early stages, said Jennifer Piggot, webinar facilitator. The pilot training center would include approximately 3,500 to 6,000 annual operations per year depending on rotations. Approximately, 10% to 15% of those would be conducted between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., Jeanes said.

The projected timeline, if the center comes to Fort Smith, has the first draft of the EIS ready by summer, at which time there will be public hearings and the final EIS available in February 2023. The final decision will be ready in March 2023, Martin said.

If the center is located in Fort Smith, F-16s will arrive in June 2023 with the first F-35s arriving in July 2024, Jeanes said. The mission is expected to continue until at least 2030, though Jeanes said there is a great deal of interest in FMS pilot training, and the mission could continue indefinitely.

During the comment section of the webinar, some in Fort Smith raised concerns over the level of noise the mission would bring to the city, but the majority expressed their support and desire to have the mission.

“We are excited about the opportunity to host this amazing mission, an important mission of the United States Air Force. We have a long history of supporting the military with our national guard and Ebbing Air Base, which is legendary in the Air Force,” said Mayor George McGill, noting that the city will make the delegates from Singapore and other countries “feel at home when they come to Fort Smith, Arkansas.”

Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith, said she was aware of the noise the fighter planes would bring to Fort Smith, but that the noise was something many in Fort Smith were happy to have back.

“We are excited and prepared for what this offers to our community,” Crawford said. “Yes there will be some noise. I live in the area where the noise will be the greatest, but I look forward to that sound of freedom.”

A second virtual public scoping meeting is planned for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 3). To register to attend the virtual meeting and sign-up to provide an oral comment, visit
www.FMSPTCEIS.com.