Airspace tug of war |

Airspace tug of war

Small airports like the Baker Municipal Airport worry that non-commercial airplanes like they ones they see daily will no longer be able to fly in and out safely if the military operations practice zone is expanded. Photo courtesy Roger Meggers

Roger Meggers isn’t unpatriotic but he isn’t keen on the idea of expanding the already 9,000 square mile military operations unit above Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming to an area about the size of South Carolina.

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed expansion was released by the U.S. Air Force in 2010 for comment. On Feb 13 of this year the Federal Aviation Administration put out a document summarizing and detailing the proposal and that piece is now open for public comment.

The U.S. Air Force proposes to make the practice zone about 28,000 square miles or as Meggers says, “from Bismarck to Billings and from Rapid City to Casper.

“I don’t think people know how big of an impact this will have on such a large area. For ten days out of the year there will be full scale war games. There will be aircraft from all over the United States here, breaking the sound barrier and performing war games. It could decrease land values.”

Meggers’ biggest worry is the impact that the larger MOA would have on private aircraft. “Our airport has no radar or contact frequencies in this area, its really limited. It is going to be very difficult for our small airports to survive,” he adds, explaining that smaller aircraft pilots are not safe sharing the same airspace as large fighter jets.

Flight training for new pilots would be impossible in 39 local airports, Meggers believes.

Because of he recent oil and other natural resource activities in his backyard, Meggers said the Baker Municipal Airport sees 5,000 landings and/or takeoffs every year. The proposal is for the MOA to be active 240 days per year.

“This is an energy rich area, there are more natural resources here than we even realized a couple of years ago. If the MOA is expanded, we won’t be able to develop these because we need airflights daily between Buffalo, Bowman, Dickinson. They just won’t be able to fly in and out of those airports adequately. It creates extreme hardship for people to get in here if they can’t fly in on small private airplanes.” Meggers said the local airports don’t utilize commercial aircraft and there isn’t even a bus service to Baker.

The complex could jeopardize 95 jobs that impact 3.8 million in economic activity, Meggers believes. He hopes the air force chooses to leave the current MOA as is. He said Montana’s congressional delegation and governor are in opposition to the proposal because they will see no new job creation and no benefit tax-wise. “All of the aviation groups” are opposed to it as well. He added that there are already MOAs in northern Montana and North Dakota in addition to the current Powder River complex.

Belle Fourche, S.D., area rancher Clark Blake flies a piper supercub to check his livestock, oversee gas wells and hunt predators. Already ranching beneath the current MOA, Blake has a good feel for what its like to fly in the same airspace as large bombers.

“On an active day we’ll have a dozen to 15 planes go over. It is just random.” Blake said he has tried calling flight service to see if they air force would be active on a certain day and was told “no” even as he could see large aircraft overhead. “They don’t have the greatest communication or knowledge of what’s going on.”

“All we get now is heavy bombers, B1s and the occasional B52. But if this expansion goes through we’ll have fighter aircraft in here.” Blake said the fighter jets are likely to fly lower, even below 100 feet.

“For a pilot in a light aircraft like I am, it is really dangerous when they are closing in on you at 500 miles an hour, they are really hard to see.”

Blake’s plane won’t withstand the vortices that are created from the high level military planes, he said, explaining that it is not only collisions he has to worry about but also the turbulence the large planes leave behind.

Besides the concerns for ranchers using planes to check livestock and control predators, Blake explained that some pipeline being built in the oilfield is “aerially patrolled” with local small aircraft. He worries that none of these industries will be able to utilize private aircraft any longer.

“Its going to have a huge negative effect on anybody trying to run a ranching operation and anyone else trying to run a business under this thing and it will also create a very unsafe environment for these pilots.”

Blake and other area ranchers have identified another concern relating to the proposal and its affect on wildlife.

They wonder how the sonic booms, dropping of chaff and other disruptions will affect sage grouse numbers. “It was believed years back that when they broke the sound barrier, the noise was having an effect on the sage grouse hatch. We’ve got a lot less sage grouse than we had then.” Blake explained that the sage grouse are a candidate for the endangered species list so “we can’t afford to lose anymore of them.”

The current flyover zone even affects ranchers in the area that don’t fly. “There have been a number of people here had livestock scared out of corrals and through fences.” Chaff including aluminum “confetti” has been dropped in the past.

South Dakota Senator John Thune has backed the proposal from the beginning.

“The Powder River Training Complex Expansion is important to the Air Force and South Dakota,” he said. “By expanding the current training space and allowing for the B-1 Bombers to conduct exercises closer to home, the Air Force will be saving millions of dollars in flight hours over the long-term and providing pilots and personnel with the critical experience they need in conditions that more closely resemble combat missions. These young men and women have volunteered to serve in harm’s way, and we must ensure they have the training they need to safely return home when called upon to defend our country.”

Thune also provided some background on the proposal. The Large Force Exercises, which will involve multiple aircraft and no live fire, will only take place for a maximum of 10 days, spread over four separate drills throughout the year, he said. He assures those within the area that notifications will be sent out prior to the “war game” exercises. Interruptions to local, civilian aircraft operations will be kept to a minimum and all local, community airports will be able to maintain normal operations, he says, with the exception of a few days per year. Military aircraft will be recalled in emergencies.

During the public comment period, the Air Force has taken into account the concerns of local communities, such as making special accommodations for calving season. Based on the size of the expansion, for most ranchers and local residents, it is likely that they will only be aware of an aircraft over their property once or twice a year.

Training exercises will never take place over 26,000 feet, so commercial aircraft transiting through the region will not be affected.

Thune said that based on information released by the Air Force, that agency would have saved $21 million last year alone if the expansion had occurred in 2013.

Comments on the FAA document are due April 3, 2014 and should be sent to:

Manager, Operations Support Group, ATO Central Service Center, AJV-C2

Airspace Study 14-AGL-06NR

Department of Transportation

Federal Aviation Administration

2601 Meacham Blvd

Fort Worth, TX 76137.

Concerned individuals may obtain further information at that same address or by calling 817-321-7734.

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