Tohono O’odham Nation Vice-chairman Verlon Jose and other members of the nation met with Luke Air Force Base wing leaders in February in support of an annual government-to-government visit the Air Force conducts with Native American tribes that are impacted by military training operations.
“Located in southern Arizona, the Sells Military Operations Area is a national treasure of training airspace associated with the Barry M. Goldwater Range,” said Chas Buchanan, 56th Range Management Office director. “It is an essential part of the complex and overlies much of the 2.8 million acre Tohono O’odham Nation west of Tucson. It’s used by squadrons from Luke, Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, and the Arizona National Guard for pilot training activities that are crucial for national defense.”
The visit included mission briefings and a questions and answers session to address concerns.
“The flying training mission in the Sells MOA is the same as in many other training areas throughout the U.S. and can impact those on the ground due to sonic booms from supersonic flight, low altitude overflights, and general noise from the aircraft,” Buchanan said. “This can occasionally be disruptive to citizens of the Tohono O’odham Nation who enjoy a quiet and peaceful way of life, or “Him-Dag,” in the sparsely populated Sonoran Desert. The group also visited the F-16 Fighting Falcon simulator where they were able to receive a hands-on experience.
“The F-16 simulator gives the Tohono O’odham leaders a better feel for what the pilots are experiencing when they are flying in the airspace above their nation,” Buchanan said. “It gives them an understanding of how quickly things can occur and how dynamic the thought process is for pilots while they are in the air.”
The Barry M. Goldwater Range airspace in southern Arizona extends from near Tucson west along the U.S.-Mexican border to Yuma and overlies the current and historic lands of the Tohono O’odham people. The BMGR has been used by the Air Force since 1941.
In an effort to foster the government-to-government relationship with the Tohono O’odham Nation, Luke AFB has an Installation Tribal Liaison Officer who works directly with them to address military activities and any other concerns of the nation.
“Regular visits to Luke are important in helping the leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation understand the importance of pilot training to national security,” said Kevin O’Berry, 56th RMO. “Not only are we able to demonstrate some of our missions and activities that occur in the airspace above their nation, these visits also help keep the communication channels open in an effort to mitigate impacts and address their concerns whenever possible.”
It’s essential to maintain a working relationship with the Tohono O’odham Nation for mission success.
“The Tohono O’odham Nation plays a significant role in supporting our pilot training operations,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, 56th Fighter Wing commander. “A significant portion of our airspace is above their traditional lands where they have lived for thousands of years and it’s important we understand each other’s needs and concerns.”