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
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
Phone: (575) 784-4131
Fax: (575) 784-7412
Emiline Ostlind is an intern for High Country News, where this article originally appeared.