May 30 to June 5 was an action-packed week that included a governor being shouted down by “QAnon lizard people,” a controversial county sheriff saved by a hung jury, the tragic death of a man shot in a Santa Fe motel parking lot and a publicly funded sweepstakes that will reward people for summoning the courage to save their own lives by getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
But the news event that grabbed the city by the lapels and shook it silly was the roar of a four-engine turboprop called the Hercules.
Surely, you heard it — Tuesday evening, right after dinnertime and lasting into the gloaming.
Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. The Taos hum. Without the Taos.
The sound came from a lone Air Force C-130 Hercules — languidly circling Santa Fe as if waiting for a table at The Shed to come open.
Around and around and around and around and around and around it flew, dizzying some with concern, others with revulsion, and just about everyone with questions that took days to answer, though likely not to everyone’s satisfaction.
Full disclosure: I didn’t pay the C-130 much heed at first, having spent a big hunk of my life in metro areas where Air Force jets and police helicopters provide an aural anvil chorus that bangs the eardrum into submission.
There’s also this: In the newspaper business, you get a lot more worried about planes landing unexpectedly — i.e., crashing — than those that stay aloft.
But with every phone call and email, it became apparent that a flight like this — actually, flights, this is not a one-time bolt from the Air Force blue — riles people for many miles.
One of them is Jai Lakshman, who wrote a short, incisive email to me that shared a little background of Santa Fe’s long history with Air Force flyovers and asked for any information I might be able to obtain.
I called him Friday and we chatted for an hour. I learned a helluva lot more than I was able to impart.
Lakshman, a longtime Santa Fean who works as a consultant, gave a measured, reasonable voice to the frustration of a lot of people. That the Air Force has a mission and must train its people, he said, is unquestioned and supported by most people. Its need to be prepared, he emphasized, is not the issue — or at least, not his issue.
But Lakshman said what bothers him and others is the inability of the Air Force to warn people that low-level flights will be made over the city, not to mention its apparent unwillingness to provide even the semblance of explanation about why a plane would need to spend an hour or more overhead.
“Look, I’m not shopping a conspiracy theory,” he continued. “All I’m saying is there’s a level of reasonableness that can be used.”
Lakshman also pointed out an irony I hadn’t really considered.
“It’s this deafening silence [from the Air Force] in the midst of an almost deafening noise,” he said. “These are the extremes.”
With that as backdrop, I was extremely interested, and frankly a bit surprised, to get an email Friday evening from the public affairs office of the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, where the flight originated. It offered the following answers to questions reporter Scott Wyland of The New Mexican and I had asked this week:
What was the aircraft doing or training on during the sortie?
Cannon: The flight was routine training conducted to maintain proficiency for the aircrew. In order to maintain proficiency, aircrew must conduct a certain number of flying hours in various conditions to ensure that they are ready to project real world special operations airpower requirements.
Why was Santa Fe chosen as the location for the sortie?
Cannon: We train over a variety of areas within New Mexico. The area surrounding Santa Fe offers challenging elevation and terrain features for our crews to retain proficiency and is an extremely valuable asset to maintaining readiness. A variety of factors such as weather, air traffic control authorities, FAA guidance and airspace availability go into the specifics of where and for how long we can conduct training. In instances near populated areas, such as Santa Fe, our aircraft mitigate noise and disturbance to our communities by using the highest altitude allowable by conditions to provide cost effective and safe training.
Will there be more flights over Santa Fe?
Cannon: Cannon Air Force Base must maintain the proficiency of its special operations aviators. It is a possibility that future training flights will take place in proximity to Santa Fe, as well as other parts of New Mexico. The location will be dictated by a variety of factors at the time of training. These can include airspace and training range availability, FAA guidance, weather and air traffic control instructions. Every effort will be made to conduct training flights with the lowest impact to the surrounding communities. This could include limiting flight time, using the highest elevation possible for conditions or flying outside of heavily populated areas.
Obviously, if Wyland or I had talked to someone other than an efficient senior airman who answered the phone and relayed our messages, we might’ve been able to get better, or maybe more, answers. Maybe not.
And so, the beat drones on.
A lot of people here are bracing for the next time a hulking military aircraft lumbers through the airspace above Santa Fe, gritting their teeth as they scan the skies.
Even the Air Force seems braced for a backlash: On the Cannon Air Force Base website, there’s a link to a noise complaint page, complete with a detailed form and the little “I Am Not a Robot” box that you can check with the muted, almost imperceptible click of a computer mouse.
Sometimes, that is the sound of freedom.