Sunday, January 18, 2015

Pilots, airports unhappy with Air Force expansion

DICKINSON, N.D. -- The U.S. Air Force has approved the proposed 12.7 million-acre expansion of the Powder River Training Complex that would cover parts of southwest North Dakota, southeast Montana and western South Dakota, setting up the plan for final approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The decision comes less than two months after the Air Force finished an environmental impact study on the proposed military airspace expansion in late November.

If approved by the FAA, the expanded training area would be the largest Air Force training space in the continental U.S. Under the plan, the military airspace would double, increasing from 9 to 21.7 million acres. In all, the proposed training area would span from the Crow Indian Reservation in southeast Montana to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in south-central North Dakota and from Sundance, Wyo., in the south to Amidon, N.D., in the north.

On Friday, U.S. Congressional members from North Dakota and South Dakota touted the Air Force's decision as a win for the U.S. military and Minot and Ellsworth Air Force Bases while thanking Air Force officials for meeting with local pilots and airport administrators from the region to address people's concerns about the proposed expansion.

"Today's Record of Decision opens the door for better training for Minot's B-52s, while limiting the impact on civilian flights in southwestern North Dakota, which was a concern we worked to address," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement. "I appreciate the Air Force's commitment to working with us to find a solution that addresses concerns raised by general aviation and airport administrators. Also, I have requested that the Air Force continue working with local aviation interests as the range comes into use."

But while federal officials believe the plan is needed to serve the U.S. military, some people from the region remain unsatisfied with the plan, arguing that the expansion is a federal overreach that expands the military airspace even though the existing space has served the Air Force for years, throughout numerous wars.

"Unless I am missing something, I just don't get this," said Roger Meggers, an aviator from Baker, Mont., who has led the opposition against the plan.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the language in the Air Force's final proposal allows for flexibility to receive more input from impacted communities.

"Our country is made strong by our families, our businesses and our national security forces that keep us safe," she said in a statement. "That's why it's crucial that we keep our rural towns healthy, and our local economies thriving by continuing to secure the access of our pilots, airports and businesses need to do their jobs throughout this expansion in Powder River."

Regional delays

Opponents to the plan have said they are concerned about flight delays from more than 30 airports in the region and possible declines in corporate flights to those airports.

Officials at the Baker and Bowman Municipal Airports have said they are concerned about a possible drop in traffic at the airstrips, which have both made substantial improvements in recent years to accommodate increasing corporate flights in and out of the region. Officials in Bowman are expected to complete construction on a new $14 million airport in May.

Air Force officials and congress members have said the plan would rarely cause delays in air travel besides the 10 days out of the year when the Air Force would run large-scale exercises involving roughly 20 aircraft at a time.

"I hear a lot from local stakeholders about their concerns with this expansion, and worked with the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration to address them," Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a statement. "I'm pleased by the Air Force's accommodations to the concerns raised, and hope for successful implementation which provides adequate training and enough flexibility to ensure minimal impacts on other uses of the airspace."

But local pilots and congressional members from Montana point out that the plan would allow the Air Force to use the airspace for smaller operations 240 days out of the year.

"We were hoping our new airport would attract more flights," said Rodney Schaaf, president of the Bowman County Airport Authority. "We just hope this Powder River plan doesn't drive away business."

Schaaf said the Air Force has told him that the plan would only cause minimal delays at the Bowman airport, but he questioned what a minimal delay was -- whether it meant a couple of minutes or several hours.

The Bowman County Airport Authority had hoped the plan would have been amended to exempt low-altitude flights in Bowman County, but he said that hasn't happened.

Safety concerns

Those in opposition to the plan have also raised concerns about the safety of small-plane pilots that would operate under see-and-avoid flight plans, which requires those pilots to simply avoid camouflaged military jets flying at high speeds.

In response to those fears, Miranda Ballentine, the Air Force's assistant secretary for installations, agreed that the Air Force would not perform such operations until better in-flight communication among military, civilian and commercial pilots was established in the region, according to a news release from Sen. Hoeven's office.

According to the release, it could take months for that communication equipment to be installed.

Local pilots, who had not heard anything about the in-flight communication before Friday, said the upgraded in-flight communication is a start, but added that they have asked the Air Force to improve radar coverage in the area too.

"As far as I'm concerned, nothing has changed for us," Schaaf said. "The little glimmer is that communication system."

According to those pilots, there are areas in southwest North Dakota and southeast Montana where a plane cannot be picked up on radar until it is at 8,000 to 10,000 feet in the air. They said that fact remains a concern considering that most small plane pilots fly lower to the ground and the military would be conducting training runs below that altitude range.

"Yeah, there is still a concern," said Dave Helland, a pilot that operates out of Bowman.

Helland said he and the other local pilots will continue to fight the expansion plan. He said there is an upcoming town-hall meeting in Rapid City, S.D., next Friday, which he said amused him considering the Air Force has already made its decision.

All of the congressional members who support the plan have said they will be monitoring the project closely to make sure the Air Force ensures local airports and communities are not adversely affected.

"Over the past two years, and particularly in the past two months, I've been pressing the U.S. Air Force to make sure its plans protect the interests of North Dakota's airports, businesses, ranchers, tribes and local communities," Heitkamp said. "As this process continues, I'll continue to make sure that as we work to improve the Air Force's training abilities, we also keep our local communities protected, too."

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