Low-flying helicopters during Army training alarm Point Loma residents
A series of Army training exercises in the past week startled residents of Point Loma, who were alarmed by the loud rumble of several low-flying helicopters and numerous booms that shook their houses.
Such events occurred in Point Loma the evenings of Jan. 30 and Feb. 1-2. They also were reported midweek around the Serra Mesa and downtown areas of San Diego.
A statement from Lt. Col. Mike Burns, director of public affairs for the Army Special Operations Command, said the commotion was part of a series of training events.
“Approximately 100 members of the U.S. Army are conducting coordinated, essential military training in designated locations around San Diego Jan. 24 to Feb. 4,” the statement read. “The training consists of air and ground mobility operations and close-quarter combat training to enhance soldiers’ skills by operating in a realistic environment. Different environments provide new and different training experiences.”
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Residents of Leroy Street in Point Loma, between Cañon and Talbot streets west of Cabrillo Elementary School, said they were unaware that training would be taking place overhead and were initially alarmed by the rumbling sound around 9:30 p.m. Jan. 30.
Siobhan Debenedetto said she and her husband, Tom, were at home and “it was quite scary because we didn’t know what it was. We had no warning, so we had no idea what was happening. There were these very loud bangs which scared the heck out of the dogs and us, too, to be honest.”
“The house started shaking and there was this rumbling noise,” Tom said. “We thought ‘What the heck is going on?’ and then you could start to hear the helicopters.”
Debra Scott, who lives a few houses down, said she thought something horrible was about to happen.
“It was very disturbing for us and our neighbors,” Scott said. “We initially thought a plane was about to crash or that we were being invaded by enemy combatants.”
Pete Lobner, who also lives on Leroy Street, took a photo the night of Feb. 2 showing four helicopters heading west.
“There already had been a similar flight about 90 minutes earlier,” he said. “These flights were flying on a track that was some distance north of our house. On Monday and Wednesday [Jan. 30 and Feb. 1], the flights those nights were directly over our house.”
The Debenedettos said they assumed the activity was a military exercise, though the helicopters’ low altitude was cause for concern.
“We see a lot of activity going on at North Island [Naval Air Station] from where we live,” Siobhan said. “We’re up pretty high on the hill overlooking Shelter Island, and we have power lines in our backyard. I’d say they were up about 50 to 75 feet above the power lines.”
“It was very disturbing for us and our neighbors. We initially thought a plane was about to crash or that we were being invaded by enemy combatants.”
— Debra Scott
In addition to flying close to power lines, Scott said she saw helicopters getting close to several palm trees in the neighborhood and was concerned about the possibility of an accident.
“This is a heavily populated civilian residential area,” Scott said. “There is no good reason to put the health and safety of people at risk like this.”
“The issue ... for us was that they were so low, we were worried about human error, making a mistake and taking out a bunch of houses,” Siobhan Debenedetto said.
Burns said such things were taken into account when planning the exercises and that all training was coordinated with and approved by local officials.
“The soldiers that conducted this exercise are highly trained and ready to accomplish the very toughest missions in all environments, anywhere in the world, day or night, with unparalleled precision,” Burns said. “Safety precautions are in place to protect participants, along with planning considerations to minimize the impact to the community.”
“We do our best to minimize the impact to the community anytime we conduct this type of training,” Burns added. “We sincerely apologize for any disruption the exercise caused.”
Not all residents were upset. Eric Law, who is retired from military service, said the training events were a minor inconvenience.
“It’s just helicopters,” Law said. “We live in a military town, where there’s jets taking off in my backyard and helicopters all over the place. Yeah, they flew kind of low and, yeah, it was late at night and they flew right over my house. But I don’t care. To me it was more interesting than disturbing.”
Law added that he appreciates the need to train in unique areas outside a military installation.
“It’s good training for them when you think about what’s required to keep our armed forces sharp,” he said. “If you’re training on the same thing every day, you get lax. It’s important for them to see different things and different places under different conditions. And if we get entertained by a bunch of helicopters flying over our heads in the middle of the night for a couple of nights this week, well, OK.”
“We do our best to minimize the impact to the community anytime we conduct this type of training. We sincerely apologize for any disruption the exercise caused.”
— Army Lt. Col. Mike Burns
Siobhan Debenedetto said that while she understands the need for special training, she still feels that conducting exercises so close to people’s homes poses a serious risk.
“Of course they have to do their training, but maybe they could move it further out away from residential areas,” she said. “It’s just too dangerous.”
Burns said he could not speak to whether San Diego would be used for future training events, but he said there are no immediate plans for the Army to continue training in the area.
Some Point Loma residents also are concerned about a Navy proposal to increase the number of training events at Naval Base Point Loma, including helicopter and explosives exercises.
Military officials are reviewing a proposal to increase the number of training events at Naval Base Point Loma, including helicopter and explosives exercises, as some community members argue that the public comment period for the environmental assessment examining the proposed increase wasn’t long enough.
The Navy said it has been working on a final environmental assessment of the proposal and must complete several regulatory steps before any of the increased training could take place.