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TOWNSFOLK HOPE TO SHOOT DOWN MILITARY'S BOMBING-RANGE PLANS

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

When a B-52 roars over the bombing range northeast of town, La Junta residents watch the lumbering jet and "they're smiling," says retired businessman Doyle Davidson.

"People here are pro-military," said Davidson, one of the people responsible for bringing La Junta bombing range to southeastern Colorado in the late 1950s. "The people around here love to hear them flying."Now the Pentagon is considering a move to take the military out and bring in civilians to run the bombing range. Davidson isn't happy with the prospect.

A study is under way and may be completed by early March to turn the bombing range over to the private sector. Under the plan, Detachment 1 of the Air Force's 99th Electronic Combat Range Group would be replaced by a private contractor and civilian workers.

The study also includes bombing range sites in Powell, Wyo.; Forsyth, Mont.; Belle Fourche, S.D.; Dugway, Utah; and Harrison, Ark. All six would be handled by a single contractor, according to the Air Force. A contractor is expected to be named by March 16.

Like clockwork, bombers flying out of Air Force bases throughout the nation seek out one of the six bombing ranges. At La Junta, they make simulated sorties through the bombing plot's 80-mile dogleg run.

The pilots in B-52s, B-1s and Apache helicopters face simulated attack from all sides from enemy fighters and surface-to-air missiles. They counter with evasive tactics before releasing their bombs on a designated target. It's all done with radar, computers and mathematics; live bombing never was done here.

What impact the transfer of jobs from military to civilian would have on the economy of La Junta isn't known. It probably wouldn't have much effect, one way or another, since La Junta's force has fewer than 100 airmen.

"It may end up being a straight across-the-board trade, depending on the numbers of people that are hired," said Maj. Dale L. Garrett, commander of the detachment.

So it isn't the economic impact that worries Davidson - it's what will be lost when those 65 or so young airmen and their families are transferred.

"They not only have an economic impact on this community . . . but most of those military people are pretty high-caliber individuals . . . with a higher educational level than the average of the community," Davidson said.

"When they're off duty you'll find them out coaching our Little League softball teams, some of them are working for our hospice organization, some of them are working in other activities to help people less fortunate than they are, and they are just good citizens," he said.

What bothers Davidson and others in this community of 8,700 people is that they might be replaced with "the people you see in the big cities - young people that go around sloppily dressed, with Levi's on with holes in the knees, long-haired, pony-tailed haircuts."

"Some profit-oriented organization will make a bid on (the contract) . . . and I think you're not going to see those clean-cut, short-hair-cut type individual anymore. We just like that old-type living," he said.

The only dissidents, Davidson said, are a few ranchers who become irate when a low-flying bomber upsets livestock during branding.

The military first came to La Junta in 1942 when the Army built an airfield to train pilots.

"There were about 3,000 people out there in military and civilian clothes, running that La Junta Army Air Field in this town of only probably 7,000 people," Davidson said. The last class graduated in 1945.

Much of what was built by the Army sat idle until 1959, Davidson recalls. Then, the Air Force decided a radar bomb scoring unit that had been training out of Lowry Air Force Base near Denver had to move because Denver's airways were too crowded and pilots needed training in low-level bombing.

Davidson, then manager of La Junta Chamber of Commerce, helped set up a meeting between Air Force and city officials.

The next week the bomb scoring unit arrived with four trailers housing its electronic equipment.

The 99th now is housed in a new brick structure with offices, a rest area and a small clinic for medical emergencies. The vast assortment of computers and electronics gear is contained in a half dozen or so modular structures attached to the main building.

"They are getting better and better with the newer equipment obviously . . . to be able to simulate a dropped bomb and give a scored position on it without ever having to drop anything out of the aircraft, that's pretty remarkable," said Garrett.

Live bombing runs are still necessary for training, but they're done in special sites such as the Nevada desert.

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