Ranchers, AF, Senate staff talk MOA | TSLN.com

Ranchers, AF, Senate staff talk MOA

Tom Davis and other pilots of smaller aircraft worry about being caught in the vortices of Air Force fighter jets within the Powder River Training Complex which now covers 35,000 square miles. The Air Force encouraged ranchers to call with their lambing and calving dates so they can try not to disrupt operations during that time. Photo courtesy Baker Air

Most ranchers don't worry about their cattle, sheep or horses being involved in a plane crash.

The Powder River Training Complex has grown and with it, the concerns of many ranchers.

Tom Davis of Belle Fourche, S.D., and his neighbors, many of whom fly smaller aircraft to hunt predators and check livestock, water, fences and more, are concerned for the well-being of their livestock and themselves.

The fly-over zone, now quadrupled in size to 35,000 square miles, covering much of western North and South Dakota and eastern Montana, provides airspace for Air Force fighter aircraft pilots to conduct practice maneuvers

Davis hosted a meeting at his ranch nine miles north of Belle Fourche, April 22, 2015, to give local ranchers the chance to address Air Force officials and senate staff with their concerns.

The pilot of a small airplane, Davis had hoped the Air Force staff could detail the strength of the vortex of a fighter jet and that the agency would commit to keeping their aircraft above 1,000 feet.

Recommended Stories For You

"The guys told them if they'd get those things at 1,000 feet, we could live with that. They said they'll fly no lower than 500 feet. We all know that isn't going to happen."

Davis, who ranches within the original MOA, has seen fighter jets overhead, sometimes as low as 150 feet off the ground, he said.

The Air Force couldn't commit to the higher altitude request. "While we have a requirement to meet low level flying training objectives, we will continually work with those affected under the airspace to mitigate their concerns where possible," said public affairs representative Master Sgt. John Barton, 28th Bomb Wing via e-mail.

Ranchers worry about chaff from flares starting fires or dropping onto sheep and lessening the wool quality.

Barton said flares will be dropped at 2,000 feet. "This allows 500 feet for flare burnout, and an additional 1,500 feet for safety. In addition, flares will not be used if significant fire danger conditions exist – as defined by the EIS."

Senator Thune's West River Regional Director Qusi Al-Haj said ranchers and Air Force representatives discussed communication at the meeting. "They discussed improving communication so the information they share with the pilots or ranchers is current and that they are responsive to any concerns they might have," Al-Haj added that the Federal Aviation Administration required the Air Force to install equipment that allows them to quickly recall aircraft in and emergency.

Because the Environmental Impact Statement is now finished, Al-Haj said the Air Force has clear direction as to how high and low they can fly, and many other details are outlined.

Barton said if ranchers tell the Air Force about their lambing and calving dates, the agency will "do our best to avoid that particular area," but added "The ranchers can call us. We are not going to call them."

Davis said ranchers need the airspace year-round. "We've got to be able to go when the weather is good, if you are hunting a coyote you have to have a sunny day, when the weather is decent we have to be able to fly."

Davis said he will be out of business if he can't hunt coyotes by plane.

The base encouraged the ranchers to notify the Ellsworth public affairs office with any issues via phone or email, which will be routed through appropriate channels to seek resolution, said Barton. Telephone is the preferred and most timely method, he added.

The FAA publishes NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) for the specific purpose of aviation safety.

The following website http://sua.faa.gov/sua/siteFrame.app includes user-friendly information and updates, he said.

Davis said when the the Air Force was asked at the meeting to tell the local ranchers about the vortex created by their fighter jets, no sufficient response was given.

"If we are hunting coyotes, checking cows, in a supercub and we get caught in the vortex of one of those airplanes it will kill us, I don't want to die from it and neither does my son or neighbors," he said.

Barton explained in his e-mail: "The trail of disturbed air that follows an aircraft is called a wake vortex. Larger aircraft, lower altitudes, and longer wingspans produce a greater potential for a wake vortex effect. As aircraft move through the air, they create vortices from their wing tips. These vortices, collectively called wake turbulence, trail immediately behind the aircraft for thousands of feet while diminishing in strength farther from the aircraft.

"Rare, rapid turns or a pull up maneuver by a B-1 flying below 1,000 feet above ground level can result in wing vortex wind velocities greater than 27 miles per hour at 22 feet AGL behind and below the aircraft. There have been no reports of wake vortex problems from training by B-1 and other aircraft in the existing Powder River A or B MOAs. Information regarding Wake Turbulence is available in the PRTC EIS chapter 3 and 4. The PRTC EIS (as well as other related documents) can be found at http://www.ellsworth.af.mil/prtc.asp."

Barton said those living under the original MOA should not notice many differences in number of aircraft overhead. Half of the training maneuvers are planned to take place within the current MOA, and the other half will be divvied up between the additional approximately 26,000 square miles.

"The increase in air traffic in the expanded areas will be largely unnoticed during normal high-level training except during large force exercises. The most noticeable flights will be those at low altitude and any given location under the PRTC complex. According to the EIS, under a low altitude MOA a given location on the ground can be expected to be directly overflown (at 500-2,000 ft.) six to nine times per year. A direct overflight is defined as within one-quarter mile left and right of the given location.

Davis doesn't believe his concerns are being taken seriously. "They had in mind what they would do (expanding the MOA) and this (the earlier comment period) was just a formality." Davis said his earlier comments on the expansion were a "waste of time."

Senator Thune is committed to holding the FAA and Air Force accountable, Al-Haj said.

"The Air Force will continue to listen to the public and people affected in the future. If things come up nobody had anticipated, they will deal with them," he said.