SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN: FAA approves Powder River Training Complex expansion
March 26, 2015
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved plans to expand the Powder River Training Complex March 24, which will quadruple the size of the training space utilized by aircrews at Ellsworth Air Force Base.
The FAA approval is the final step in the nine-year process authorizing the 35,000 square mile training complex, which will span parts of South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. The designated airspace will become effective in September.
U.S. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) has championed the expansion against opposition from neighboring U.S. Senators John Tester (D-MT) and Steve Daines (R-MT).
"It's been a long process, but it's incredibly important for Ellsworth, and it's going to allow for more realistic training," Thune said. "That helps our airmen and aircrews prepare for the challenges they'll face, but also, it will decrease the costs to the taxpayers."
The expansion is estimated to save $23 million a year in reducing travel time and costs to training airspace. Prior to the expansion, Thune said only 46 percent of Ellsworth-based training missions could take place in the Powder River Training Complex, the rest requiring travel to training fields in Nevada or Utah. With the expansion, he said, 85 percent of training flights can take place in the Powder River MOA.
However, more traffic in the air continues to raise concern from some local pilots and agriculturalists. Clark Blake is a pilot and rancher in Harding County, South Dakota. His home and hanger are currently under the Powder River MOA, and the rest of his ranch will be included in the expansion.
Recommended Stories For You
"It's hard to believe the FAA allowed this to go forward – the FAA is who is supposed to be ensuring the safety of the flying public and the people who live here," Blake said.
For those who use small aircrafts to spray, check livestock or conduct aerial predator control, Blake said the approval of the increased air space poses a great safety risk.
"The flying we do in agriculture, we're flying aircrafts that go pretty slow – around 100 mph — we're flying pretty low to the ground – around 300 feet and below – and we're looking for things on the ground – livestock, fences, the things we have to check in our operations," Blake said. "Part of flying and being a pilot is looking for other pilots – and that's easy to do when you're dealing with other aircrafts of your own class. But when we're put out here with military aircrafts capable at supersonic flights… Well, when they're closing in on you at 600 mph, you're not going to see them."
The four quadrants of the expanded complex each have varying low-, medium-, and high-altitude sections with set limitations of use. Large Force Exercises will be conducted up to 10 days each year, allowing air crews to more effectively and realistically train for combat situations, Thune said.
When the Air Force approved the complex expansion in January, Thune noted that Ellsworth would be required to issue public notifications of Large Force Exercises at last 30 days prior in order to allow general aviation pilots time to plan around the events. Training exercises will not take place over 26,000 feet to avoid affecting commercial aircraft traffic in the region.
JT Korkow ranches near Volberg, Mont., and also flies. He said the biggest concern with the expansion is a lack of communication between the military operators and private or commercial pilots.
"As general aviation pilots, we, of course, have no ability to access military frequency. We cannot talk to the bombers or any other military aircrafts in this complex," Korkow said. Gaps in radar coverage in his area of southeast Montana mean that when he files flight plans with an FAA center, they don't always have an ability to track oncoming traffic in the airspace, nor do they have access to military flight plans. Like Blake, Korkow said he has often observed military planes in the airspace flying well below 500 feet, adding unsafe traffic to the low-flying areas most utilized by private or personal aviation.
"What we're supposed to do is call Rapid City weather radio and ask if the area is active," Korkow said. "What I've learned is not often do they really know if it is or not either."
Sen. Daines expressed his disappointment on the FAA's approval of the expansion in a news release, noting similar safety concerns.
"It's disappointing that the FAA has approved this expansion without addressing Montanans' numerous concerns about the proposal's impact on safety, emergency services and economic activity," Daines said in the news release. "I will continue working to secure the radar capabilities needed to protect aviation safety in southeastern Montana and will diligently monitor implementation of the expansion to ensure it does not have adverse effects on Montanans' safety and the region's economy."
The plan's Environmental Impact Statement executive summary notes several times in the executive summary that information on when the MOA is active and when and what training activities will be held within published times of use will be announced at least two hours prior to training use of the airspace. The information will be available by dialing 1-800-WXBRIEF, online at https://www.1800wxbrief.com or http://pilotweb.nas.faa.gov, or in-flight by contacting Flight Service.
Training activity scheduled outside of the published times of use will be announced no later than four hours prior to training use of airspace. The document also notes that the airspace schedule will be entered into the Military Airspace Data Entry (MADE) system no later than 3 p.m. MST the day prior to training use, and is available to the public via http://sua.faa.gov/sua.
But Blake said his experience with those notification systems leaves him apprehensive.
"If they actually live up to that, it may be helpful, but in the past, they have not," he said. "I've called flight service to find out if the Powder River MOA is active and been told no when I can see low flying planes in the sky. It hasn't been accurate information in the past."
Thune said he recognizes the concerns of those located in the airspace surface – "We will work with them to ensure that the Air Force honors its commitments and its promises when it comes to the implementation and use of the space, because we want to make sure they follow through on all the things they said they would do."
The mitigations also note that the complex will establish avoidance areas as necessary for airports, airfields and communities under the proposed airspace, and will focus on "continuing the current practice of establishing reasonable temporary or seasonal avoidance areas over residents, communities, and ranching operations, including those on reservations, to reduce the potential for impact during concentration of range animals for branding, calving, weaning, and/or other ranch operation.
"I'm extremely disappointed the FAA is greenlighting this expansion in the face of real concerns and opposition on the ground," Sen. Tester said in a news release. "I will hold the Air Force and the FAA accountable as this expansion moves forward to ensure the training complex doesn't negatively impact general aviation, agriculture production or energy development."
Tester and Daines also introduced legislation earlier this year to bar the Air Force from using the Powder River Training Complex to conduct low altitude flights over the Keystone XL pipeline and the oil onramp in Baker, Mont.
In the event of damage or injury associated with PRTC operations, questions or complaints can be directed to the Ellsworth AFB Public Affairs office at (605) 385-5056 during regular business hours. To request avoidance for special events or specific locations, contact the Ellsworth AFB Airspace Management Office at (605) 385-1230.
A full summary of all mitigations and full documents relating to the expansion can be found at http://www.ellsworth.af.mil/prtc.asp.