GOOSE BAY, NEWFOUNDLAND -- To the British, Dutch and German military, the idea seemed serendipitous. All three countries were facing widespread public protests against low-altitude training flights. Their dense populations were not fond of frequent buzzing by military jets.
So in the mid-1980s, at the invitation of Canada, the three nations began low-level flight training from the air base here in Newfoundland's portion of Labrador, a region twice the size of New York state with a population of 30,000. Only a few Indians, caribou and waterfowl would be underneath when the jets whizzed overhead, the thinking went.
As the allies and the Canadian government quickly found out, however, the Indians consider flybys 100 feet above their hunting grounds something less than serendipitous. And the Indians say there are signs the caribou and the ducks aren't too crazy about it either.
The issue, controversial for nearly 10 years here, is about to heat up again as this year's flight-training season opens next month at Goose Bay. The Innu Indians are preparing another round of protests against low-level flying just as Canada's government is completing a final report on the flights' impact on environment. Both actions could affect decisions by Britain, Germany and the Netherlands on whether to renew their contracts for flight training here.
Canada's military has formulated rules for jets training at low altitudes designed to ensure that they do not fly over concentrations of people and animals. But opponents of the flights, principally the Innu, say the plan is not extensive enough and is frequently violated anyway.
To the Innu, the issue is control of their land. Nomads for 9,000 years over much of what is now Labrador and northern Quebec, the Innu still spend much of the spring and summer roaming and hunting in the sparse pine forests.
"Canada sees our land as uninhabited land. It is inhabited by the Innu, and it is inhabited by wildlife," said Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue, speaking through an interpreter. "This is hunting territory, nomadic territory. It is not for war games."
To the military, the issue is economic as well as strategic. The low-level flying programs run by the allies are now the principal function of the base here. The town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, population 7,000, is largely dependent on the base and related activities for employment.
"The allies pump a lot of money into the economy here," said Canadian Capt. Rob Benson. "There's a lot of half-truths out there, and it gets frustrating at times. We like to think we're environmentally friendly."
Low-level flying, below the reach of radar, demonstrated its usefulness in the Persian Gulf War, and it is a perishable skill: Pilots need to be recertified annually. From April through October every year, British, Dutch and German pilots rotate in and out in two-week shifts here, flying about 7,000 sorties per season.
Not all of those are below 1,000 feet, the definition of low-level, but most are, and many training flights get as low as 100 feet.
In training flights, pilots are limited to two principal areas, one 25,800 square miles, the other 12,700, mostly within the Newfoundland portion of the Labrador Peninsula but some of it in Quebec province. Within those areas, they may not fly over permanent settlements, coastal areas, wildlife concentrations, or hunting, fishing or trapping camps.
Canada's military spends nearly $1 million a year surveying wildlife to set locations of restricted areas; last year, electronic collars were put on some 100 caribou so their whereabouts could be tracked.
Officials also gather information on where the Innu summer hunting camps are from bush pilots who have flown the Indians in, and they operate a telephone hot line in four languages, two of them native, for people to report plans to travel in the flight areas. According to defense officials, at one point last year some 15,400 square miles of the 25,800-square-mile training area were closed.
"If it's a known location, it will not be overflown," said Michael Hanrahan, a biophysical-effects coordination officer at the base.
Commanders of the British, Dutch and German forces have complained about the restrictions and expressed hope that they can increase the number of training missions after the environmental study is completed.
That is just what the Innu fear. They do not contend that they are bombarded constantly with plane noise from overheard, but they fear there will be more and more flights.
When Penashue, 50, was growing up, she said she wandered with her family across the hunting grounds of Labrador. The Innu were one of the last Indian bands to become settled, moving into government-built housing in the 1950s. Penashue still spends the warmer months "in the country."
When she was younger, caribou and beaver were never found dead for no apparent reason, and now they are, she said. Partridges used to bear five or six chicks; now it is more like two or three. The animals all used to be fat; now some are thin, she said.
The Innu are not much for statistics and hard evidence. Asked how many times a day the planes fly over, Penashue talked instead of how it feels when an unexpected jet shatters the peace of an early morning. But the Innu have hired a white consultant, who has produced a stack of documents supporting the case that the flights are harming wildlife and that the flying restrictions are being violated.
Military officials say pilots who fly where they shouldn't are found out and punished and that further restrictions aren't compatible with military exercises. Exactly, respond the Innu, who say their goal is the complete cessation of low-level flying.