In light of the ongoing controversy surrounding the Air Force’s plans to use Tate’s Hell State Forest to conduct military exercise, helicopters circling overhead Monday have ruffled the feathers of Carrabelle residents.
Carrabelle Beach resident Lesly Cox said based on the visible lights, there were at least two helicopters flying at treetop level for around an hour adjacent to her home beginning at 6:30 p.m. Monday. She said the aircraft were extremely loud and caused significant vibration.
Carrabelle City Hall said they received several complaint calls, both in the area of Carrabelle Beach.
The exercises, which are handled through an arrangement between a private sector company and the Special Operations Command, both in Tampa, are not related to Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Planning (GRASI), a pending Air Force initiative with the state to use Tate’s Hell for regular military exercise.
“None of these things are associated with GRASI at all,” said Mike Spaits, a spokesman with Eglin Air Force Base’s Environmental Public Affairs office. “The GRASI study is still underway. No actions that we are looking at from GRASI are ongoing.”
The exercises are conducted by special operations units, which could be the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, one of three Air Force active duty Special Operations wings. The operations, which have been conducted in parts of Franklin off and on for the past half-dozen years, are arranged by the Tampa firm of Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting, Inc. (VATC)
Alan Pierce, the county director of administrative services, said an Osprey helicopter visited the Apalachicola airport late last fall and hovered 100 feet over a home belonging to Chris Varnes. It reportedly sucked the water from an above ground pool and caused pictures to fall from the walls of the structure. The county sent a letter of complaint to the military over the incident.
Jeff Mason, VATC’s director of training coordination, said the focus is to conduct realistic military training on private properties, with the permission of local landowners, law enforcement and the county commissioners.
This last go-round, which also included larger exercises a week prior, employed the former golf ball factory on River Road. “That facility is as realistic as we’re going to find,” Mason said. “At a base most facilities are special operations command. A unit will contact us and say we like to do realistic military training.”
He said the firm has received a few complaints, mainly about helicopters from people living up the river. He said the military on Monday used Navy CH-53 helicopters. “We try to keep times we do this earlier so it doesn’t disturb locals as much.”
Mason said the firm pays to use property, buys gas and lodging locally, and employs role players, usually off0duty deputies, to assist in the exercises.
Spaits said that the GRASI study should be complete by the fall, which is the earliest any GRASI exercises would be done.
“We don’t know whether it’s going to be helicopters. It may not be. It may just be radar-type devices. It could be small teams of four to 11 guys maneuvering through the forest,” he said. “We’re still studying the potential impacts.”