They're baaaack: the black helicopters of Yoder

All Shellie Kirby wants is a place where she and her husband Mark can live in peace with their Spanish mustang, Rebel, and their other horses and burros. But their seventy-acre ranch in the southeast corner of El Paso County, where the couple has lived the past fifteen years, is no longer that place.

Since May of 2006 Kirby has been locked in hellacious battle with the sizable military presence in the county over the persistent buzzing of her property by low-flying aircraft, especially Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters. The choppers have hovered just above power lines, staged obnoxious mock battles over the back forty, dive-bombed her barn and all but landed in her driveway -- close enough that she could count rivets on the belly. They've traumatized and injured her livestock, sending panicked horses into gates, fences and each other. Kirby suspects much of the action is some joyriding by Fort Carson pilots just back from Iraq, but trying to find someone at the base who will fess up to the raids has been next to impossible.

"Fort Carson blames the National Guard, and the National Guard tells me it's Fort Carson," Kirby says.

When the choppers first started buzzing her ranch three years ago, Kirby complained to then-Representative Joel Hefley. After some hemming and hawing and no real admission of culpability, an adjutant general at Fort Carson announced a "permanent two-kilometer standoff from the property" -- in others words, a no-fly zone over the Kirby spread. That seemed to solve the problem for a few weeks, but in the fall, the helicopters returned, starting with a Chinook up the driveway.

Kirby took photos and video. She called a local TV station and then-Senator Ken Salazar. A National Guard colonel informed her that her ranch, a few miles south of Yoder, is "smack dab in a straight line" from Fort Carson to the Pinon Canyon training area and is considered an "alert area... a piece of airspace that has been specifically designated for aerial training and aerial maneuvers." The same colonel denied the Guard had any choppers in that area and suggested Fort Carson was the culprit.

Kirby considers herself as patriotic as the next person. She's put up with giant C-130 transports lumbering overhead from Peterson Air Force Base and Air Force Academy pilots in training engaging in cut-engine maneuvers not far from her house. But the copters are a lot noisier, a lot closer and a lot more dangerous -- and in direct violation of the no-fly order, if she can ever get Fort Carson to admit the choppers are theirs.

The helicopters will come back several times a day for several days, then vanish for months. After a lull, three Blackhawks toured the property last week on Labor Day. Another showed up the next evening, buzzing the house and a horse pen at a height Kirby estimates at no more than thirty feet.

Rebel is still recovering from the trauma of earlier chopper visits, and Kirby fears more close encounters may cause him worse injury. "It's a felony to intentionally harm a horse, but that doesn't seem to matter in this case," she says. "My dreams have been shattered by this."

Her latest e-mail complaint to the base hotline is a scorcher: "Why don't you have a squadron in broad daylight bring their guns and shoot the horse and myself for target practice and make it a media event worthy of YouTube. You would get rid of me and that animal once and for all and get this over with, putting me out of my stress and misery... Maybe then higher-ups in command and Congress will pay attention to what has been going on here for the last three years."

Kirby is still waiting to hear back from Fort Carson on her latest complaint. An e-mail she received in response to a previous complaint claims that all aviation units on the base are notified of the no-fly order: "We sympathize for any incidents contrary to what Fort Carson has in agreement with respect to the no-fly zone, and we will continue to make a concerted effort to ensure that the no-fly zone is understood and enforced."

But as Kirby, her horses and the photos below can attest, it ain't working.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast