Seasoned bird watchers can add one more winged creature to the 200-plus native species that routinely soar over the Adirondack Mountains: the MQ-9 Reaper drone.
Earlier this year, the New York Air National Guard announced it would use the airspace over the 6-million-acre park to conduct surveillance training missions. The unmanned Reapers, which are assigned to the Air Guard’s 174th Fighter Wing, will be piloted remotely by crews based at Watertown’s Fort Drum and Hancock Field in Syracuse. The drones are not expected to carry any weapons, according to published reports.
Thus far, public reaction to the training flights has been mixed. Sen. Charles Shumer (D-NY) supports the drone flights and has also come out in favor of expanding their use in upstate New York. The Adirondack Mountain Club essentially shrugged off the news, saying the drones will not compromise the region’s tranquility as much as previous military flight training programs have.
But antiwar groups and civil libertarians are voicing their opposition. Notably, the New York Civil Liberties Union points out that the high-altitude surveillance planes, also known as “the big eye in the sky,” will eventually be deployed to Afghanistan for spying missions and bombing raids. That means their training missions across the lake could violate privacy and due-process rights of Adirondack residents and visitors.
Neil Woodworth, the longtime executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, seems to know as much about the military aircraft soaring over the park as its natural flyers — and for good reason. For 22 years, Woodworth has served on New York’s Governor’s Task Force on Military Overflights. The special advisory council was created in 1989 by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo to address public concerns about B-52s and other noisy jets that were flying at low altitudes over the park. Wildlife biologists at the time feared the massive bombers were scaring away endangered bald eagles and peregrine falcons.
“Believe me, when you were on the ground and a B-52, with eight big General Electric turbojets, came over at 500 feet, it shook the ground,” Woodworth says.
The B-52s were probably the loudest and most disruptive of planes swooping low over the park. Woodworth points out that many other jets, including F-16s from the Vermont Air National Guard, and A-10s from the Massachusetts Air National Guard, have also made use of the Adirondacks for training purposes.
The number of flights is declining, though, according to Woodworth. Training over the Adirondack Mountains was most popular during the Cold War, he explains, when the U.S. military’s primary focus was on Europe, not the Middle East. The Adirondacks look a bit like southern Germany, where military planners imagined the possible advance of Soviet tanks. Today, he says, it’s preferable to send air squadrons to the American Southwest, where conditions are more akin to what pilots experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In short, Woodworth says he doesn’t believe the public will even notice the drones when they’re launched in August, largely because they fly at 30,000 to 50,000 feet with turboprop engines.
“The average hiker, paddler, kayaker, backpacker is not ever going to be aware that they’re there,” he says. “They fly very high, and they’re very quiet.”
The drone’s stealth is exactly what concerns Melanie Trimble, director of the capital region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union in Albany. Her organization has voiced objections to the flights, in part because it’s unclear what the drones are doing and what kind of safeguards will be in place to protect the privacy of the people below.
Trimble acknowledges that military planes have trained over the park for years. But she asserts these flights are fundamentally different in nature.
“Most of the other military aircraft aren’t taking pictures and recording what they’re seeing,” she says. “But drones work that way. That’s why they’re there. It’s different from maneuvers or flybys to train pilots.”
One concern, she says, is that the military could be photographing or videotaping civilians at their homes. Thus far, it’s unclear what those photos and videos will be used for, how long they will be stored, and whether they’ll be shared with other intelligence or civilian agencies, such as state and local police. If so, they could constitute warrantless searches.
For this reason, she says, the NYCLU plans to file freedom-of-information requests with various military agencies in New York State to get more conclusive answers. As Trimble puts it, “If you’re going to spy on us, we’d at least like to know why and where and what you’re doing with all that information.”