School Bus
Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

I have an acquaintance who has a very wide libertarian streak in him, and one of the reasons he moved to a rural part of El Paso County was to find peace and quiet while being left alone by a government he believes intrudes on his space all too often. Ironically, this fellow worked for the federal government his entire life, but that paradoxical duality must await a future column.

I appreciate the value in such a lifestyle. I spent my childhood summers on my grandparents' farm in western Iowa. I sat in the evening and would watch as night fell, stars came out, and the cows fell silent. Bucolic and beautiful.

I was reminded of those gentle days and warm nights when I read a story in the Colorado Springs Gazette describing the awkward situation the U.S. Army finds itself in up in the quiet mountain areas of Colorado. The Army is looking to make permanent a test program — now in its 10th year — that trains helicopter pilots for Afghanistan and other mountainous areas.

As it turns out, the Army learned — from tragic results — that flying actual combat missions overseas in mountainous conditions was especially dangerous for inexperienced chopper pilots. It seems learning about flying your craft high in the mountains, where the air is thinner and the ground isn’t flat, is very difficult and can be, well, fatal. So, the Army thought it would be a good idea to try to train air crews in similar terrain as the “hot zones,” but without anyone shooting at you. So, Fort Carson, just to the south of Colorado Springs, ended up with 120 helicopters and 43 landing spots up in the high country. As a result, some residents of that far off land object to the noise and the sight of helicopters buzzing around on training missions. Now, I readily admit that I come at this issue with my own bias, based on my over 25 years of active duty. But I also try to see the other side of things. Should the Army be able to fly lots of helos around, irritating local residents and perhaps even destressing some wildlife? Do people have a right to not be annoyed?

I don’t know. 

I suspect that quite a few of those living those far-off lives come from a pretty libertarian background themselves and see these flights as an unreasonable governmental intrusion into their lives. 

So, who is right and who is wrong?

One side? Both? Neither? Some combination? There have been interesting Supreme Court cases over the years, with one of the most interesting and perhaps applicable being “United States v. Causby,” which was the case of a farmer who owned land next to a military base. Planes landing flew low over his farm, and irritated both man and beast. The Supreme Court ruled that while Mr. Causby had some rights to control the airspace above his farm, that right does not extend upward and onward forever. But that case would only apply if the choppers flew low and loud directly over private property. 

And so, I ask again, do you have a right to never be annoyed? It is a fact that such training directly saves American lives, as pilots learn to fly in difficult mountain terrain while not being shot at simultaneously. Once again (quietly putting on my tattered and worn political science professor hat) we have a need to address the most fundamental question in governance: liberty or order?

On every issue, we calculate that balance. Stop signs limit your “freedom” to not stop, but order wins out, and we put up stop signs, for the greater public good. It would be easy for me to say the helos should fly wherever they need to fly, as I’m not under the flight path (though in fairness, I am an aviation nerd, and I run outside to look up when I hear a cool aircraft flying over my house). 

So, what’s the balance here? If we tilt toward “liberty,” and ban the flights, we know that we are essentially condemning some number of pilots, who would otherwise be trained in Colorado’s high country, to greater risk and possible death. If we tilt toward “order” and allow the flights, do we set up a situation in which a person can never be free of governmental bother?

Sorry, I don’t know the right answer here. I only offer yet another example of real-life political science and the uncertainty that must always accompany the liberty or order debate. Personally, I like the helicopters, but that’s just me. But it does lead us back to an important question:

Do you have a right to not be annoyed? 

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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