Wilderness Protections And National Security Spark Latest Debate Around Eagle County Military Flight School

HAATS High Altitude Aviation Training Site Eagle Army National Guard
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Army National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Eagle County schools helicopter crews from all U.S. service branches in the high-risk skill of managing their aircraft in the thin air over mountainous terrain. A Virginia National Guard crew practiced landings in the White River National Forest between Gypsum and Aspen on Aug. 13, 2019.

Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton wants defense officials to study how wilderness protections might affect a one-of-a-kind aviation training center located to the west of Vail.

The matter is a point of contention among some elected representatives.

Colorado’s entire congressional delegation agrees that the High Altitude Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County Airport in Gypsum is important for national security. But they disagree how proposed changes to protections of the surrounding lands would affect operations.

Known to many as HAATS, the program began in 1985 as pilots helping pilots. Vietnam-era aviators saw a need to train younger pilots in a high, hot and heavy environment. The school became official in 1995. Since then, week-long classes attract students from around the country and from foreign military allies.

Tipton has a bill that would require the Department of Defense to study how expanding different types of protections would impact “readiness of the Armed Forces of the United States with respect to aviation training, and for other purposes.”

He wants to “make sure they have an actual study in terms of any potential impacts some designations could have and to be able to report back to Congress,” he told CPR News.

Tipton plans to discuss his bill with other Colorado lawmakers in Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks.

HAATS has come up in congressional debates over other bills involving Colorado’s wilderness. That includes the CORE Act, which passed the House in October and was championed by Democrats Rep. Joe Neguse and Sen. Michael Bennet.

The bill passed the House with several amendments, including one saying military aviation training on federal public lands in the state is critical to the national security of the country.