When a survey by a pro-military organization concluded that Tucson strongly supports Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, a group concerned about noise and safety of military aircraft complained that the results didn’t adequately represent the base’s neighbors.
So Tucson Forward did its own survey of people living in or near the base’s flight paths. The finding: Most oppose the use of louder or “riskier” aircraft.
This time, the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance — which conducted the first survey — is crying foul.
Tucson Forward sent its survey in August to 4,000 of more than 29,000 single-family homes near the base. It drew 571 responses in a three-month response window, with 57 percent saying they oppose replacing D-M’s fleet of A-10 close air-support jets with louder planes including F-16s, F-18s, F-22s and the next-generation F-35. No such replacement is planned, although there is one to bring in more visiting F-18s and F-22s.
Also, 56 percent opposed louder jets flying out of the Arizona Air National Guard 162nd Fighter Wing base at Tucson International Airport, which now flies F-16s.
“We wanted to know just what the residents most affected by the overflights thought of the idea of bringing in these louder planes, and the SADA survey doesn’t supply that,” said Lee Stanfield, a Tucson Forward board member who helped coordinate the survey.
Although the survey was sent to randomly selected homes, its methodology is so flawed that it does not accurately determine what neighbors think, said Bruce Dusenberry, president of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance and a local business leader.
“It was very biased, with question wording similar to a ‘push poll,’ ” Dusenberry said, referring to a type of political poll that uses leading questions to prompt a desired response.
The Tucson Forward survey called the F-16, F-18, F-22 and F-35 “high-risk fighters” because they are either single-engine or single-pilot aircraft. It asked whether respondents support or oppose replacing the current jets at D-M and the Air Guard with such aircraft, based on their safety risk. Fifty-four percent of respondents opposed such a shift at D-M, while 53 percent opposed such replacements at the Air Guard base.
Eighty-three percent of respondents in targeted Tucson ZIP codes strongly support keeping D-M open with current jets and operation levels. But that support dropped to 59 percent if noisier planes were brought in.
The Southern Arizona Defense Alliance survey, released in March, concluded that more than 90 percent of the region’s residents support the military presence in the region. Seventy percent agreed that the benefits of having a strong military presence outweigh issues regarding noise generated by louder aircraft.
The surveys come as D-M finalizes plans to significantly expand visiting-pilot training programs, including Operation Snowbird and other joint training that would periodically bring some louder planes to the area. The public has through Monday to submit comments on a draft environmental assessment of the training expansion plan.
“High risk” challenged
Dusenberry challenged Tucson Forward’s assertion, printed in survey materials, that D-M’s A-10s could be replaced by louder jets, including the F-18, F-22 and F-35, and the premise that such planes are “high-risk.”
Air Force data cited by Tucson Forward show that the F-18 and F-22s are three to four times louder than the A-10, and the F-35 is eight times louder than the A-10 and four times louder than the F-16 at an altitude of 2,000 feet.
The Air Force plans to retire the A-10, mothballing all 80-plus A-10s at D-M with F-16s by 2019, though Congress has moved to stop the plan. Some F-16s already fly out of D-M periodically during training and as part of a homeland-security unit stationed at the base.
And D-M has been passed over for now as a base for the next-generation F-35, though in coming years the stealth aircraft is slated to become the nation’s primary fighter jet.
Tucson Forward’s Stanfield said the defense alliance’s survey was flawed because it didn’t spell out which aircraft may be flying increasingly over Tucson, or how loud they are compared with most planes using D-M.
And though there are no plans to station F-35s at D-M, it will eventually come through the base for training, she added.
“Even though they didn’t specifically talk about the F-35, the F-35 is coming through here, even if it’s through the back door,” she said.
There are no plans to base the other jets at D-M, Dusenberry said.
Under a pending plan to boost visiting-pilot training at D-M, flights by F-18s and F-22s would comprise less than 3 percent of D-M’s total annual flight operations, the Defense Alliance says.
The idea that single-engine or single-seat planes are a significant risk to urban areas is misleading, Dusenberry said. Air Force figures show that military fighters are statistically safer than commercial airliners.
Scott Hines, D-M’s community-relations chief, confirmed there are no plans to replace A-10s with anything other than the proposed replacement with F-16s cited in the Air Force’s proposal to retire the A-10.
Hines said the number of training flights by louder aircraft estimated in the latest draft environmental assessment for the training expansion represents the maximum of those predicted flights.
Mail survey criticized
Tucson Forward’s Stanfield said the Defense Alliance’s March survey was flawed because it didn’t spell out which aircraft may fly over Tucson more often or how much louder they are compared with most planes at D-M. She also criticized the survey for polling throughout Tucson rather than focusing on people living near the base.
Dusenberry said that though his group’s survey was more regional, it oversampled areas around D-M, including the ZIP codes Tucson Forward used plus two others, while a special “intercept” poll captured residents close to D-M.
Dusenberry criticized Tucson Forward’s use of a mail-in survey to a limited area of single-family homes, which he said excluded many lower-income residents.
Using a survey, rather than conducting interviews or using an online survey that shows only one question at a time like the Defense Alliance did, could have created bias because people could review all the questions or change answers after seeing additional questions, he said.
Indeed, the American Association for Public Opinion Research warns that mail-in surveys can be problematic because respondents are “self-selecting,” which can lead to nonmeasurable biases that skew results.
Tucson Forward did not include a margin of error in its survey release, but Stanfield said it was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
A University of Arizona expert on public-opinion polling said mail-in surveys can be valid, provided more research is done to assure that the demographic characteristics, such as educational level, of respondents are similar to those who didn’t respond.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with mail-in surveys, as long as the people who respond are representative of the overall population,” said Samara Klar, a UA assistant professor of government and public policy and a member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.
Tucson Forward says the survey was based on a commercial mailing list and sent to randomized addresses. A local mail service sent the surveys and gathered and tallied the responses.
The group got consulting help from Margot Garcia, a retired professor of urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University who has conducted large national surveys and taught about survey development at VCU and Arizona State University.
Tucson Forward’s Stanfield said the mail-in survey was sent to single-family homes partly because many lower-income residents lack computer access, but targeting single-family homes may also have captured the concerns of homeowners who may be unable to easily move if they find aircraft noise unbearable.
“People who rent can move away if they don’t like it,” she said.
But the UA’s Klar said targeting only stand-alone homes can affect survey results because apartment dwellers and renters in general tend to be lower-income, younger and more mobile.
The Tucson Forward survey asked if respondents were aware that the D-M contributed 2.6 percent of Tucson’s gross domestic product in 2012, compared with the tourism industry’s 4.6 percent contribution as reported by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
There was no follow-up question, but the group has contended that much louder flights could harm the local tourism industry.
Dusenberry contends that pitting military operations against the tourism industry is a false choice. Visit Tucson, the region’s visitors and convention bureau, says D-M is a key driver of local aerospace tourism, he noted.