Plan to triple Air Force training space progressesA plan to more than triple the airspace in which the U.S. Air Force can conduct training exercises with its Dakotas-based B-1 and B-52 bombers is progressing, and officials expect an environmental impact statement to be finalized by winter.
By: By Dirk Lammers, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A plan to more than triple the airspace in which the U.S. Air Force can conduct training exercises with its Dakotas-based B-1 and B-52 bombers is progressing, and officials expect an environmental impact statement to be finalized by winter.
Col. Jeffrey Taliaferro, Ellsworth Air Force Base’s 28th Bomb Wing commander, said the five-year effort to expand the airspace is a complex process that involves working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the region’s Native American tribes and the public through a detailed environmental review.
“We just continue to grind through the bureaucratic processes that we need to to make sure that folks’ concerns are addressed, and that all of these different agencies and governments have their opportunity to comment and have their questions answered,” Taliaferro said.
The Powder River Training Complex, centered just northwest of where South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana meet, now spans about 8,300 square miles.
The space can accommodate only one or two bombers at a time, so some B-1B Lancers from South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base and B-52 Stratofortress bombers from North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base have had to fly to Utah or Nevada for their combat exercises.
The Air Force says the expanded area would help pilots practice bomb runs, defensive maneuvers and evasive actions used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wants to add three “military operation areas” to create a fly space of about 27,500 square miles — an area larger in square miles than the state of West Virginia. The complex would encompass a portion of southwestern North Dakota and new parts of northwestern South Dakota and southeastern Montana.
Taliaferro said he thinks many people looked at the large map and thought they’d never be able to fly through the airspace, but that’s not the case.
“With our proposal, if you’re general aviation, you can fly under it, you can fly through the corridors, around it, through it,” Taliaferro said. “If you’re an airline or a regional carrier, you can fly over it.
“It’s not like there’s a big brick wall in the sky.”
A draft environmental impact statement was released in August, and public hearings were held in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana in September and October to solicit public comments.
Air Combat Command, with headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va., is working on the final impact statement, Taliaferro said.
The draft plan has irked some civilian pilots concerned about the additional air traffic, as well as some ranchers who worry that flyovers by low-flying, 146-foot-long aircraft will spook their livestock. Montana’s delegation has expressed concern about the effects on flight patterns of medical and other small aircraft.
Ernie Clark, a retiree and flying instructor at Spearfish, said he questions the need for expanded training space when flight simulators and remote areas such as oceans are available.
The big bombers flying so fast at low altitude are a hazard to smaller planes, he said.
“When they’re four miles away you can’t see them, but if they’re going 400 miles per hour unless you’re looking at them they are on you before you even have a chance to see and turn or dive out of the way,” Clark said.
Clark said he’s opposed to the expansion but not to the level of some who are actively and emotionally involved.
“My thought is the Air Force will do this whether anyone listens or not. That’s a sad situation, but I’m afraid that’s reality.”
Buffalo rancher Larry Nelson said the light planes he and other ranchers fly at low altitudes to check fences and livestock or for predator hunting are no match for wing turbulence coming off the military planes.
“If they’re flying at 500 feet and I’m at 300 feet and they overfly me and I get caught in that turbulence it’s wreck me,” he said.
Nelson said he also is concerned that chaff deployed during the training runs could contaminate wool on his sheep and that flares used in training could start fires in an area with natural gas and oil wells.
“If flares are dropped and fires start in that part of the country there are serious consequences in addition to my loss of forage and that type of thing,” Nelson said. “There is no firefighting equipment I’m aware of in Harding County and volunteer fire departments that is capable of oil or gas well fires”
The original Powder River airspace will continue to be used the most, as the boundary contains ground-based emitters that simulate enemy radar and systems. Pilots can’t drop bombs in the Powder River area, but they would be allowed to release magnesium flares and chaff, a countermeasure made of aluminum-covered silica fibers.
Taliaferro said that even after the expanded airspace is finalized, Ellsworth wants to continue to be good neighbors and mitigate any friction.