Fate of training zone up in the air | TSLN.com

Fate of training zone up in the air

Maria Tussing
Assistant Editor

The U.S. Air Force is near a final decision on the much-contested Powder River Training Complex. The final Environmental Impact Statement was published Nov. 28, and the Air Force must wait a minimum of 30 days to make a final decision.

Eric Bursch, military affairs adviser to North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, said they're expecting a decision Dec. 29. That decision must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, no sooner than Feb. 15.

Heitkamp and South Dakota Senator John Thune both support the expansion of the Powder River Training complex, which will quadruple the size of the current practice range to about 28,000 square miles. That support is contrary to the opinion of their constituents, says Belle Fourche, South Dakota rancher Tom Davis, who has been following this proposal since it was introduced in 2010. "We feed this country and they ought to pay more attention. Nobody's listening—not Thune or Noem or Johnson or Rounds."

Heitkamp said in a press release, "The new plan will make Powder River Training Complex the largest training airspace over the continental U.S. It will enable servicemembers at Minot Air Force Base to expand their mission, reinforcing the crucial military work done in our state, and it will bring servicemembers from around the country to this region to get top notch training to help them protect our country. At the same time, we need to also make sure the Air Force keeps its promise to limit the impact of the expansion on our communities, businesses, local airports, pilots, ranchers, and tribes who rely on our land and unobstructed air space to do their jobs. By working together with the Air Force and our local towns and businesses, we can strike the right balance between strengthening our national security and heeding the economic, cultural, and safety concerns of our communities."

According to Thune's website, "The PRTC expansion will provide Air Force pilots and personnel with adequate airspace to perform the critical training they need in conditions that more closely resemble combat missions. In addition, the expansion would enable limited large force exercises (LFE) where multiple aircraft and crews can train together simulating a combat environment."

The website says the expansion will increase the flight density and it is likely that most ranchers and residents will be aware of an aircraft over their property only once or twice a year.

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Ranchers and other opponents are skeptical.

Davis said he's already had plenty of experience with the Air Force's training missions, and that they often break their own rules.

"They've said they won't fly below 400 feet, but they spent more time at 150 or 200 feet than they ever did at 400," he said.

The specifications for altitude spelled out in the EIS are definite rules, but the frequency of flights is an approximation based on a statistical model.

Captain Christopher Diaz, with Ellsworth Air Force Base, said they will investigate all concerns, "We will field any and all comments, questions or concerns regarding Ellsworth's use of the airspace. The 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs Office (28bw.pa@us.af.mil or 605-385-5056) will work with the appropriate offices at Ellsworth and/or other outside agencies to investigate each incident and address the issue in question."

The EIS says "temporary avoidance areas" can be established at the request of ranchers during sensitive times, like weaning and branding, but it doesn't give maximum time frames or frequency of establishing those areas. "Ellsworth Air Force Base will work with ranchers on a case-by-case basis to address their requests and concerns regarding temporary avoidance areas and timeframes to avoid those areas," Diaz said.

Davis said the use of small aircraft to hunt coyotes, spray crops and assist with medical emergencies is another concern.

Diaz said, "The FAA is a cooperating agency and will make decisions regarding airspace establishment. FEIS Section 2.3.1 describes mitigations associated with the scheduling of the airspace. The Air Force will establish procedures acceptable to the FAA to recall military aircraft from the airspace prior to the Air Force operating in the proposed Low MOAs. Military aircraft would be recalled in a timely manner for a number of reasons such as IFR (Instrument Flight Rated) arrivals and departures to airports within the airspace, as well as to support emergencies."

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is opposed to conditions in the final EIS. "We are concerned that the Air Force has chosen not to make accommodations for general aviation operators in its final environmental impact statement," said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA vice president of government affairs. "We will continue to work with all parties involved to help find ways to improve the operation of the airspace and minimize the economic consequences associated with this military training area."

Montana Governor Steve Bullock opposes the expansion. According to a press release, he suggested several changes that would make the plan acceptable to Montanans. The changes weren't made, so he is discouraging secretary of defense Chuck Hagel and secretary of transportation Anthony Foxx from proceeding.

"There is no doubt that Montanans support our nation's efforts to enhance national security," Bullock said in his most recent letter. "Montanans volunteer to serve our country at a higher rate than any other state in the nation. The PRTC expansion proposal, however, would be at the expense of the livelihoods and economic prosperity of many Montanans."

"The Air Force is committed to being good neighbors to those who could be affected by the proposed expansion. If the airspace is expanded, the Air Force will continue to proactively engage all stakeholders involved to ensure that any and all concerns are addressed and mitigated where possible," Diaz said.

Why was the expansion suggested?

The proposed expansion of the Powder River Training Complex (PRTC) is intended to allow aircrews to plan realistic training scenarios directly applicable to current combat operations and potential future conflicts. In addition to increasing the combat-readiness of our aircrews to respond to contingencies, the proposal has the added benefit of more efficient use of increasingly tight resources, providing for better stewardship of taxpayer resources.

Mission employment of the B-1B and other aircraft evolved significantly throughout their involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. These new roles created a need for larger training airspace in order to provide realistic training scenarios that more effectively train aircrews for combat deployments. The proposed increase from one local training area to four segmented local training areas will allow multiple aircraft, or formations of aircraft, to use individual training areas simultaneously.

The location of the proposed Powder River expansion will allow both Ellsworth and Minot aircrews to complete their training sorties, return to home station quickly and allow a separate crew to use the same aircraft that same day to complete another training sortie. This is not sustainable for training missions flown to non-local airspace. This lack of flexibility currently represents a significant challenge. The ability to fly two complete training missions, with two separate crews, using a single aircraft in one day, is pivotal to increasing training opportunities at Ellsworth. This capability results in increased combat readiness to meet real-world mission requirements around the globe.

In addition to increasing the combat readiness of our aircrews to respond to contingencies, the proposal has the added benefit of more efficient use of increasingly tight resources. Currently, aircrews must travel to remote training ranges like Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) and Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) to complete required training missions, dramatically adding to crew fatigue, fuel consumption and maintenance costs. Expanding the PRTC will allow Ellsworth to conduct most (up to 85 percent) of the wing’s flight training locally. This provides more effective and efficient training and provides for better stewardship of taxpayer resources.

–Ellsworth Air Force Base