Sunday, December 11, 2016

Planes from 28th Bomb Wing make Eastern Montana pilots, ranchers uneasy

Flying recently at 5,500 feet in a small propeller plane with a student at the controls, Ben Bulcher spotted a black speck out of the corner of his eye and got a sinking feeling.

It could have been a bug pressed against the windshield, but just to be safe the flight instructor had the student descend. And in those first few seconds as the little plane descended toward the Eastern Montana desert, the speck grew wings and then took on the shape of a B-1B bomber, screaming overhead about 1,000 feet above him.

“It’s moving fast enough that it goes from a speck to an airplane in a couple seconds and then they’re over you,” Bulcher said. “I tried to take my phone and take a picture but as fast as they were going, it was over.”

The bomber returned, this time flying within 100 to 200 feet of Bulcher’s small plane. The instructor got his student safely on the ground at Baker Airport, and then filed a near miss-report with the Federal Aviation Administration.

It’s been a little more than a year since the U.S. Air Force began using a West Virginia-sized training area — the Powder River Training Complex — covering Eastern Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. The range stretches from just 50 miles east of Billings to 50 miles south of Bismarck, N.D. 

Pilots and ranchers living beneath the airspace say their relationship with the Air Force has been turbulent, even dangerous, since the training area went into effect. In Baker, where the bombers, which can fly in excess of 550 mph, are about to be cleared for flights as low as 500 feet above the ground, things are testy.

“They’ve been flying high and now they want to get down to 500 feet,” said Roger Meggars, who flies oil pipeline routes at low altitude out of Baker. “It will shut me down if they do.”

The risks of running into a B1-B bomber while flying at low altitude with one eye to the ground is just too much, said Meggars, who also manages Baker Airport and rebuilds Super Cub airplanes.

Baker isn’t a quiet airport, Meggars said. There are 7,000 operations on its runway per year. It hasn’t been successful in its attempts to keep bombers flying high.

The Air Force isn’t looking for permission to fly bombers at 500 feet, said Rachel Allison, chief of public affairs for the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base. The permission has already been granted for bombers taking off from Ellsworth just north of Rapid City, S.D.

“More than half of the airspace extends down to 500 feet above ground level and this area includes that over Baker, Montana,” Allison said. “However, the FAA has implemented communication requirements to ensure that the Air Force has the ability to recall aircraft in emergency situations.”

The Air Force may begin those low flights over Baker in the spring.

The lack of communication about bomber flights has private pilots nervous in the Powder River Training Complex. The region is broken into four parts, each spanning a hundred miles or more. Private pilots are notified when each area will be active, but not exactly where the bombers might be. A bomber in area two could be somewhere between Billings and Gillette. For private pilots, it’s flier beware.

“If something happens in a military operations area, it’s our fault,” Bulcher said. “If they get in our way, it’s still our fault. It doesn’t matter in an MOA.”

The communications required to greenlight the bombers for 500 feet flights over Baker, would inform the Air Force when an emergency flight was passing through a training area, so bombers could stand down. It wouldn’t inform private pilots, who in these parts fly at 500 feet to check on cattle and crops.

In this part of the Montana, where grass is so sparse it might take dozens of acres to keep one animal alive, many ranches have a plane tucked away in a rusting metal building beside a flat stretch of ground.

Scot Robinson is one of those rancher pilots. On his place 45 miles southeast of Miles City he keeps a Super Cub in a small hangar along with an old Ford tractor and small cement mixer.

There’s a foil pie tin on the floor beneath the Super Cub’s motor to keep its leaking fluids from staining the hangar floor. It’s no B-1B, but the little two seater is good enough to fly Robinson’s 33,000 acres to find a lost calf or shoot coyotes.

“I had my near miss with a B-1 bomber several years ago. I don’t want another one,” Robinson said.

Bombers have been flying over the Robinson ranch for decades. The property is located in an older and much smaller bomber training area that’s been folded into the PRTC.

Aside from the rare bomber crash, the Air Force and the cowboys in this High Plains Desert have gotten along, Robinson said, but the relations have been tense since the bomber flights have dropped to 500 feet, or even lower.

“From September of ’15 to the end of May 2016, they were in here quite a lot and they were quite low, well below 500 feet,” Robinson said. “I know that for a fact because I’ve seen then fly below the ridges and the ridges are about 250 feet.”

At night bombers have flown low enough over Robinson’s daughter’s house to light the yard with the B-1’s pulsing strobe.

The family has recorded video of B-1s flying just above the ridgeline. The Air Force has told the Robinsons the family’s altitude estimates are off.

Robinson said the stress the low flights puts on his calves causes them to lose a few pounds. The industry term for the weight loss is shrinkage. And at six pounds lost per animal, and fancy calves selling for $1.63 a pound, the losses spread over several hundred animals, adds up.

His neighbor's calves were injured, a few died, when a low flying bomber spooked the newly weaned animals and they attempted to charge through a steel corral.

“I put in a claim for 1 percent shrinkage, It’s probably closer to 3 percent. They’ll probably deny it,” Robinson said.

It can be hard to square the Air Force version of events with the public’s version.

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