Low-flying military planes won’t be a nightly occurrence in Tucumcari or other area communities and, when they are, Cannon Air Force Base officials will try to notify city leaders in advance.
But training in unfamiliar areas is important for Cannon pilots, officials told about a dozen area residents on Wednesday at the Tucumcari Convention Center.
Some city residents were alarmed June 16 when a Cannon plane circled the city for about an hour.
Wednesday’s meeting was designed to inform the community about what to expect from Cannon operations in coming months.
Members of Cannon’s 27th Special Operation Wing spoke about AC-130H Spectre gunships and other planes stationed at the base west of Clovis.
“These planes are very large and slow and when they are in combat they are usually flown at night,” said Capt. Michael Murphy.
“Our biggest defense in such a large plane is the cover of night,” said 1st Lt. Zack Unger, an electronic warfare officer. “We operate at low altitude to avoid detection by radar in combat situations.”
Murphy said Cannon is home to two AC-130H planes, one of which attracted the attention on June 16. By the end of the year, Cannon expects to have eight AC-130H planes, he said.
Unger said Cannon training missions cover a large area that includes Tucumcari.
Murphy said the plane’s normal operating altitude is 8,000 feet, though it flies at 4,000 feet about 10 to 20 percent of the time.
“The plane flying over Tucumcari (on June 16) was at 4,500 feet,” Murphy said. “We do not like to fly at lower altitudes because it is harder for the plane and its crew to operate efficiently.”
Unger said the planes’ armaments — a 40 mm Bofors gun and a 105 mm Howitzer — will not be loaded with ammunition while flowing over area communities.
“The only time that the weapons will have ammunition is while we are over the Melrose Bombing Range,” Unger said.
Murphy said there may be unloaded ammunition aboard the planes as they fly over populated areas at times. But he said normally all ammunition is shot at the bombing range before proceeding to the next phase of training.
Cannon officials are working on a way to notify area cities before flights, said 2nd Lt. Ray Gobberg, a public information officer. But he said ever-changing flight plans, times and weather make notification difficult.
“In an ideal situation, we would like to notify you a week in advance,” Murphy told the Tucumcari audience. “As a pilot, I fly by ear; we do not know what path we will take or how long we will fly over a certain area.”
Murphy said pilots and crew don’t like to fly over the same area constantly because they want to simulate combat situations, which require flying in unfamiliar skies.