Low-Level Training Flights

Nitassinan (or "Ntesinan"), the homeland of 10,000 Innu people in the Quebec-Labrador peninsula, was a host to over 7,500 low - level training flights by NATO forces in 1988, and the Canadian government is lobbying hard to "win" a NATO base for the area, which would increase the number of flights to 40,000 per year. The aircraft are training for "deep strike" strategies, and fly at 100 feet above the ground, at speeds up to 800 miles per hour, and sound levels of 140 decibels.

By Brennan Lloyd | 1989-06-01 12:00:00

The military training being conducted in Nitassinan airspace is not only potentially destructive due to the delivery of nuclear and other high-yield weapons, but in practical terms. Human and wild life, as well as the environment are adversely affected. While noise, emissions, sonic booms, use of lasers, and microwaves are the major sources of environment- related damage, no base line studies were conducted prior to military activities to allow a conclusive comparison identifying the degree of environmental deterioration as a result of the flights. Still, documented evidence shows increased stress levels in humans (particularly children), disrupted breeding and migratory patterns in wildlife, plus other damages are caused by the overflights.


Sound is measured in decibels (db), which is a unit used to express the relative intensity of sounds, and the pressure the sound produces on the human ear. "Harm" levels for sound depend on both the intensity of the sound and the length of exposure to it. For example, normal conversation measures 60 decibels; a subway train 100; human pain threshold is 110; and a high speed jet at 100 feet is 140 decibels.

One of the important factors in human and wildlife to response to the noise produced by the low-level is the "startle" effect. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a sound increasing more than 40 db over a period of .5 seconds will trigger a "startle response." This response can occur even during sleep, and consists of a variety of physiological and behavioral manifestations. It is not a voluntary reaction, and one does not get used to it over time.

There is evidence that wildlife may incur more harm from aircraft noise and sonic booms than domesticated animals, but disruption of breeding and reproductive patterns have been identified in both. There has been considerable documentation of disrupted breeding habits and migratory patterns in wildlife in Nitassinan, most notably in the caribou herds, and waterfowl.

Sonic Booms

A sonic boom occurs when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound - a phenomenon similar in many ways to an explosion. As an aircraft approaches 760 miles per hour, the air begins to pile up in front of it, and the pressure waves created by its motion can no longer move ahead of it, thereby sharply increasing drag. As the aircraft flies faster than 760 m.p.h, at supersonic speed, it leaves behind two conical shock waves - one from its nose, the other from its tail. This causes the "sonic boom" heard on the ground after the plane passes.

Sonic booms shatter glass and damage buildings and property, in addition to the effects of noise, as already outlined. The military fighter aircraft at Goose Bay have supersonic capabilities, and while current training in military flying areas is at subsonic speeds, the military has proposed they be allowed to fly at supersonic speeds up to 50,000 feet, and as low as 50 feet above ground level. According to the report of the Canadian Public Health Task Force, the full impact of sonic booms is "not fully appreciated currently, but it is the opinion of the Task Force that it would be potentially dangerous."

Aircraft Emissions

The aircraft used in the low-level trainings are high-speed, and high consumers of fuel. While the level of consumption differs from one model to another, the smoke and gaseous emissions consistently include unburned hydrocarbon (HC); carbon monoxide (CO); and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). In addition to the gaseous emissions, contemporary aircraft designs require the intentional discharge of liquid fuel into the atmosphere, as part of the process of engine shut-down in "normal" flight or ground operations. All of these aircraft emissions are environmental pollutants, and while their effect on the food chain of Quebec-Labrador is not known specifically, there has been much research and scientific agreement in recent years identifying this category of environmental pollutant as direct contributors to global crises of atmospheric changes and ozone depletion, forest deterioration, and declining water quality.


Microwave radiation, a non-ionizing radiation, is generated by electrical and magnetic fields that alternate at varying frequencies. Aircraft emit such waves with radio communication and radar. Proponents of the military training in Nitassinan have argued that the same waves occur with radio, television, overhead power lines, cellular phones, and video-display terminals, and that those occurrences somehow negate the potential health risk of the microwave radiation resulting from the low-level training. However, consideration of frequency and intensity of occurrences could prompt other conclusions, as could consideration of some American military regulations. Concentrations of microwave transmissions are generally agreed to cause sterility, reproductive irregularities, and cataracts.

The use of lasers for military purposes range from weapons systems which sweep low-energy laser beams across battlefields to blind soldiers up to a mile away, to use as part of a nuclear weapon delivery system. In the case of the military activity being practiced in Ntesinan, lasers will be used predominantly to "illuminate targets," and for bombing under the guidance of lasers.

Lasers emit electromagnetic radiation photons, of various intensities based on their energy output.The consequences of accidental radiation occurs in a fraction of a second, and can range from a minor skin burn to instantaneous and permanent blindness. The risk is increased, as the presence of the radiation is not detectable, nor is inadvertent exposure apparent prior to the appearance of the actual, irreversible physical damage.


Proponents of environmentally damaging or disastrous activities argue that there is "cost/benefit" ratio in which environmental well-being must compete with some other gain. This does not apply to the environmental war being waged in Nitassinan. The ratio is one of "cost/cost" - the cost of destroying a regional environment, to gain the ability to destroy the planet.

Brennain Lloyd is a North Bay activist.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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