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Attention citizens of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming: Get ready for new neighbors in your skies as the U.S. Air Force plans to train pilots over far-reaching swaths of the West. The Air Force's existing training areas, developed during the Cold War, are too small and flat to prepare pilots for the war in Afghanistan where planes and weapons now have longer ranges and reach higher altitudes than decades ago. To bring training up to speed with modern aircraft and warfare technology, two Western Air Force bases -- Ellsworth in South Dakota and Cannon in New Mexico -- are seeking public input on expansions of their training areas. According to its draft environmental impact statement, Ellsworth Air Force Base plans to more than quadruple the size of its Powder River Training Complex from about 9,500 square miles situated roughly between Miles City, Mont., and Rapid City, S.D., to about 40,000 square miles spanning a swath of North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Nearly 3,000 "sorties" or training flights of B-1 and B-52 bombers would be allowed (according to the DEIS at page 2-58), plus additional flights of other aircraft, though wing commander Colonel Jeffrey Taliaferro expects only about 900 flights to go out from Ellsworth annually. B-1s may fly as low as 500 feet above ground level, but B-52s fly higher. The planes would drop chaff -- very fine strands of silica coated with aluminum that create a cloud-like decoy to hide planes from radar -- and lit flares that would burn out before they reach the ground. In addition, though not currently planned, the Air Force would reserve the option for up to 20 aircraft to fly together in special exercises on up to 10 days per year, some reaching supersonic flight, which causes a loud sonic boom, at heights of 10,000 or more feet.

Air Force Expansion Could Mean Not-So-Friendly Skies Over the West

Attention citizens of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming: Get ready for new neighbors in your skies as the U.S. Air Force plans to train pilots over far-reaching swaths of the West.

The Air Force’s existing training areas, developed during the Cold War, are too small and flat to prepare pilots for the war in Afghanistan where planes and weapons now have longer ranges and reach higher altitudes than decades ago. To bring training up to speed with modern aircraft and warfare technology, two Western Air Force bases — Ellsworth in South Dakota and Cannon in New Mexico — are seeking public input on expansions of their training areas.

According to its draft environmental impact statement, Ellsworth Air Force Base plans to more than quadruple the size of its Powder River Training Complex from about 9,500 square miles situated roughly between Miles City, Mont., and Rapid City, S.D., to about 40,000 square miles spanning a swath of North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Nearly 3,000 “sorties” or training flights of B-1 and B-52 bombers would be allowed (according to the DEIS at page 2-58), plus additional flights of other aircraft, though wing commander Colonel Jeffrey Taliaferro expects only about 900 flights to go out from Ellsworth annually. B-1s may fly as low as 500 feet above ground level, but B-52s fly higher.

The planes would drop chaff — very fine strands of silica coated with aluminum that create a cloud-like decoy to hide planes from radar — and lit flares that would burn out before they reach the ground. In addition, though not currently planned, the Air Force would reserve the option for up to 20 aircraft to fly together in special exercises on up to 10 days per year, some reaching supersonic flight, which causes a loud sonic boom, at heights of 10,000 or more feet.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., commended the Air Force for undertaking the expansion, which will improve combat training for the war in Afghanistan while cutting fuel costs.

However, ranchers, pilots and other residents in the “primarily unpopulated areas” where the expansion is planned feel threatened. “I would never wish on anybody the noise impact that comes from a B-1 bomber flying over at Mach One,” says Marvin Kammerer, whose ranch is adjacent to the base. “Thirty-six people have died in plane crashes on this ranch over the years,” he adds. Residents worry that the airspace would become too dangerous for civilian planes, turbulence would disrupt wind farms, flares would start wildfires, chaff would sicken livestock, and sonic booms would interrupt the peace and quiet.

“We’ve got 25 years of history in our current air space of being good neighbors,” Colonel Taliaferro said of Ellsworth counters. Concerning use of chaff and flares, which will be new in the air space, the Air Force notes in its environmental assessment that the cartridges falling to the ground would have the impact of a “Bic-type lighter,” adding that if someone finds the debris on the ground, “the individual could be annoyed.”

And about potential supersonic flights, the Air Force reports, “the booms could shake some homes enough to knock over things but would not harm foundations,” according to the Casper Star Tribune.

In addition, Cannon Air Force Base plans to establish a low-altitude tactical navigation area [pdf] spanning from Grand Junction and Colorado Springs south to Albuquerque and Santa Fe and extending down to Cannon Air Force Base on New Mexico’s eastern border. The area was selected for its proximity to the Air Force base, mountainous terrain and “lack of large civilian populations.” Training in the proposed airspace would include approximately three sorties per day, or approximately 688 each year, mostly after dusk Monday through Friday.

C-130 planes used for refueling and CV-22 Osprey aircraft that maneuver like helicopters would fly 200 feet above-ground-level at about 220 miles per hour at night through the mountains.

Here, even political figures oppose the expansion. “I think it’s clear that 200 feet over wildlife or over cattle or over our community is significant impact,” Colorado State Representative Sal Pace told the Trinidad Times. “It’s imperative on the Air Force to do a full environmental study, and not shortchange the citizens of southern Colorado with a half-ass study.”

Ranchers in southern Colorado, already fighting the proposed Piñon Canyon Army Base expansion, which would buy up hundreds of thousands of acres of private ranch land, have joined the opposition. “It’s a sad day for America when good, hardworking, patriotic American ranchers have to defend their homes and their way of life against an invasion by its own military in the form of low-altitude flights,” the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition wrote on its website.

Ellsworth Air Force Base is holding several public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement for the Powder River training area expansion. View this flyer [pdf] or call (605) 385-5056 for information on meetings in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Send comments by November 13 to:

Ms. Linda DeVine

HQ ACC/A7PS

129 Andrews St, Room 337

Langley AFB, VA 23665-2769

Cannon Air Force Base is accepting public input on its Environmental Assessment for the proposed low-altitude tactical navigation area through October 4, 2010, to:

Cannon AFB Public Affairs Office

110 E Sextant Avenue, Suite 1150

Cannon AFB, NM 88103

27SOWPublicAffairs@cannon.af.mil

Phone: (575) 784-4131

Fax: (575) 784-7412

Emiline Ostlind is an intern for High Country News, where this article originally appeared.

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24 comments

  1. I’ll take expansion of good ol USA planes over those of our enemies who will not even bother with EIS.

  2. The author, Emily ostlind, must be a young woman. We’ve already been dow this runway.

    Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s the upper half of Wyoming and most of central-eastern Montana were used day in and day out as electronic bombing ranges. Tiny Powell WY even had an Air Force Base of radar rangers. My own Big Horn Basin was swarmed with massive B-52’s and B-1 bombers, and occasionally even Royal Air Force Tornados and Jaguard and Aussie FB-111 swing wing Aardvark fighter bombers, plus some unusual aircraft and tankers and fighter escorts, etc. A lot of these planes were based out of Ellsworth AFB at Rapid City, or the big Mountain Home AFB in Idaho

    These were low level runs. Loud. Quite often driving to Billings MT from Cody you would get strafed by a B-52 just above treetop level near Fromberg. Thrilling. The tiny towns of Kaycee and Tensleep on opposite slopes of the Big Horns were directly under the B-52 runs. Once while running a theodolite on a ridgetop on a land survey crew above Hyattville WY , had a dark grey B-52 G go by me BELOW my elevation about 400 yards out. I tracked it with the instrument. The ground shook and the air stunk of kerosene for an hour.

    This scenario was repeated all over Wyoming and Montana back during the last years of the Cold War and especially during Gulf War I. That’s because Wyoming resembles the terrain of certain hot spots like Iran, the Caucuses , Afghanistan , etc.
    One great story: During the summer of 1990, the Wyoming Centennial Wagon Train route from Casper to Cody was continually strafed by bombers. When they started getting too close too often over the badlands of Big Horn Basin , a personal call to our former Congressman then secretary of Defense Dick Cheney took care of it. He moved the flightlines over a few miles and we all went on ur merry ways.

    I have photos of B-52’s flying in the distance over wagons, stagecoaches, and horses and people in pioneer clothing. How fun.

    What I’m saying is, this is nothing new. We’ve dealt with it before. Pilots are given good advance notice of the training runs via Notices To Airmen , and commercial flights are already trained to work around the military.

    Anyone who thinks this is a new issue and alarming is wrong on both counts.

  3. I’m an Air Force Vet. and noisy U.S. military aircraft overhead give me a feeling of security rather than alarm.

  4. As the grandson and son of former US Airman, and the proud father of a current A1C, I say suck it up.

    We are all called on from time to time to sacrifice a few things for the greater good of our nation; this is one of those times.

    The expansion will create better trained pilots in Afghanistan. These brave young men risk their lives on daily basis; let’s keep that risk to a minimum.

    And I’m pretty sure the majority of the “ranchers, civilian pilots, and other residents” noted in this piece would agree.

  5. Wow, I’m actually on the same side as Dewey on this.
    I don’t know how many times I’ve had my ears pinned back over the years by military aviation. Even though it’s good for a jolt, it’s a good jolt, and rare enough to be a treat, not an annoyance.
    Got a private air show one time near NAS Fallon, I had a surplus AF signal mirror on me and flashed a flight of Hornets. That was a really fun ten minutes.
    Never mind that proficiency matters.

  6. To fulfill our responsibilities as sheriff of planet earth we’ll give up [b]almost[/b] everything.

  7. “We are all called on from time to time to sacrifice a few things for the greater good of our nation; this is one of those times.”

    How does any of this military crap serve the greater good, clarence?

  8. Well Jedediah, you speak English, not German or Japanese right? Neither have you had your head chopped off since 9/11 because you are not Muslim.
    In fact that we are able to openly express our opinions is because of our military, God bless them.

  9. Our military has been used as an instrument of shock and awe to wrest resources from barefoot savages since 1412.
    Nobody in the military has done anything to protect our nation’s borders or its citizenry since 1814.
    Its only purpose has been, is and will be to transfer power and wealth from poor people to privileged people.
    If you can demonstrate otherwise perhaps you’d do well to do so…

  10. The U.S. Military does what it is told to do by civilian politicians whether its waging Wars of defense or conquest or disaster relief operations. And U.S. G.I.s have done a great job at enormous personal sacrifice since the days of George Washington.

  11. They’re not training for Afghanistan, where there’s no Taliban radar and they can hit their targets from 35,000 feet with precision-guided munitions.
    They’re training for Iran.

  12. Whatever their training for, they need to practice. You can’t win wars or battles without being well organized and proficient.

  13. This is just Democracy in action, folks. I’m a veteran, my father was a veteran and neither one of us thinks citizens should just roll over whenever the military wants something. I for one am happy that people question the motives of this expansion. When citizens stop questioning their government and their military is when we run into dictators and demagogues. Ms. Ostlind has written a very thoughtful and relevant piece and I thank her for it.

  14. There is a distinction between questioning and obstruction for the sake of obstruction.

  15. Obstruction is impossible in a natin where the military/industrial complex has become the economy.

  16. Military/industrial complex is out dated by about 50 years. The U.S.’s Military and industrial base has shrunk since then. Try Corporate/Financial complex. In any case there’s a lot of obstruction masquerading as environmentalism.

  17. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. You say banana…

  18. “I’ll take expansion of good ol USA planes over those of our enemies who will not even bother with EIS.”
    You’re talking about the Islamic air forces I expect?

  19. Jed, I am talking about anyone who is an enemy of the United States. Iran is a concern right now, Japan in the past, I am sure there will be more as the years go by. Ouor armed services via planes, ships, or whatever is our only defense, and they should be allowed to fly where ever they need to.

  20. “I am talking about anyone who is an enemy of the United States.”
    The United States of America has made enemies of all people for the past 200 odd years. Its only concern has been converting all resources to favor its Princes of Privilege. People like you fit in very well with that values system…

  21. any of you folks who are so excited about having this happen ever tried to stay on a green colt when some of this fast moving hardware shows up? My bones aren’t getting any more flexible with time. A busted something means some personal sacrifice for me, and some adverse effect to my business, though certainly not on the order of the folks who are putting their lives on the line overseas. So much for low stress stock handling. Won’t even bother to try to talk about the increasingly rare state of peace and quiet. Seems like there ought to be a better way to use the existing situation and designated spaces to accomplish what the AF is trying to do, then expanding. I went to one of the meetings about this expansion, I listened to what they had to say, and I did’nt come away with much hope that this would work out very well.

  22. Brad—your bruised rump is a small price to pay for securing the nation’s skies …the true cost of freedom … although it may not seem so at the time… on that third buck …the one that sends YOU into the sky for an active service drill… as you sound the battle cry from the land of the free and home of the brave, “Whoa , you SOB , whoa…..

    (whump)

  23. The sounds of Freedom…

  24. Hopefully someone else will “benefit” from what we have had to put up with for the past thirty five years. When we had livestock we had many serious incidents caused by the noise those low flying jets with their afterburners on caused. Many times we would find a lamb drowned in a stock tank, once a Holstein heifer calf. It wasn’t until I was actually in the corrals when one of the jets came over that I saw how the panicked animals behaved and saw a calf lurch into a tank and get hung up with its head underwater that I realized what had been going on. Once my wife was in the middle of artificially inseminating a 1300# cow and a jet came over panicking the cow who started bucking in the stanchion and thew Sherron to the ground and stepped on her face. She could have been killed. I wrote to my member of Congress but to no avail. Republicans don’t support their constituents in conflicts with their darling military.
    I can remeber back to the early days of jets that could break the sound barrier and the jet jockeys would fly down the mountain valley we lived in between Edwards AFB and George AFB in California and break windows allover town then come up and visit the bars and laugh about it knowing that the AF would pay for the all the damage done.