Aircraft conduct training exercise, weather balloons aloft

Tuesday was an interesting day in the skies above Archuleta County.

With two unfamiliar aircraft and a series of peculiar balloons passing overhead, people took notice. Some even phoned The SUN office.

As it turned out, however, the planes were two De Havilland Dash 8 aircraft based at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. Privately owned, they are under contract with the military and utilized Stevens Field for pilot proficiency training in the hours around noon.

After a few “touch-and-goes,” both craft landed on Runway 19, taxied to Avjet, the midfield Fixed Base Operator, and took on fuel. According to airport eyewitnesses, no cargo was removed from either plane. Prior to their early-afternoon departure, six crew members visited town for lunch.

During a Tuesday phone interview, Avjet Manager Bob Goubitz said that such aircraft commonly visit Stevens Field with similar motives.

He suggested that, due to light traffic and mixed topography, the airport proves useful in developing pilot skills. Goubitz added that Avjet always receives advance notice whenever such activities are planned for Stevens Field.

As for the balloons, Stevens Field Manager Bill McKown acknowledged that Tropical Western Pacific launched at least four “weather balloons” in the area Tuesday, with approximately eight more planned over the next couple of weeks.

With equipment originating out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the flights are part of a Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program.

The balloons are opaque in color. Near the earth’s surface, they are about five feet in diameter, but expand to approximately 60 feet in diameter as they approach altitude at 60,000 feet. Eventually, after various atmospheric measurements are attained, the balloons gradually “deflate” and return to earth.

Again, prior to any balloon launches, Stevens Field is notified and airport “notams” are issued to alert nearby pilots of ongoing aerial activity.

chuck@pagosasun.com