BOMBING OVER HETTINGER: Air Force pushes forward with controversial air training area expansion

A controversial plan developed by the U.S. Air Force has many area farm owners and aviation experts urging the federal government not to follow through on its military training area expansion project.

Posted March 28, 2014


Pioneer Editor


powder river area map

A controversial plan developed by the U.S. Air Force has many area farm owners and aviation experts urging the federal government not to follow through on its military training area expansion project.

Plans call for the Powder River Training Area that currently spans South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana to be expanded into an 18-million acre bomber-training complex that would sprawl over southwest North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. U.S. Air Force crafts from Minot Air Force Base and Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City would utilize the area for exercises nearly five days each week and, 10 to 12 days of the year, host large force exercises across the stretch. Large force exercises, colloquially known as war games, are the employment of military resources in training for military operations, either exploring the effects of warfare or testing strategies without actual combat.

Rodney Schaaf, pilot and president of the Bowman County Airport Authority, said these training exercises and the general presence of the aircrafts could render negative consequences for the area.

“We can understand the increased military training they want for their mission, but we don’t quite understand why they need it four times bigger,” Schaaf said.

The most pressing issue is the altitude at which several of the military aircraft would be flying, notably over Bowman which has been designated in the plans as a “low area,” at which crafts could fly at a minimum of 500 feet above ground. Other areas involved in the expansion, such as Hettinger, have been designated as “high areas,” meaning aircraft could only fly from 12,000 to 18,000 feet above ground.

“That’s going to kill us for the new airport,” Schaaf said.

The new Bowman Regional Airport, which is currently under construction, would be one of the main airports within the expanded region, posing a great threat to Bowman’s aviation and commerce, according to Schaaf.


‘He’ll never see me and I’ll never see him’

Common aircraft that would be involved in training are the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, both of which are strategic bombers for the Air Force. The B-52 would navigate in the areas designated “high” and the B-1s, a supersonic bomber, would be operating in the “low” areas. Thirty to 40 aircraft simulate war scenarios during the exercise.

A potentially dangerous situation could occur if a small aircraft is traveling through the proposed training airspace.

Schaaf, an experienced pilot and former pilot in the Air Force, said on a normal day he could take a plane down to Rapid City and be there in an hour. Because he would fly under 18,000 feet – the required altitude at which to maintain radar contact – he would not need to speak to an air traffic controller, a tower or be tracked by radar.

“I have the responsibility to see and avoid anybody around me,” he said.

That presents problems when considering massive B- 52 and B-1 bombers will be nearby, traveling around 500 mph.

“He’ll never see me and I’ll never see him,” Schaaf suggested.

Another scenario regards the surge of air traffic landing in Bowman related to oil activity and the delays they could encounter.

If a traveler, for example an oil company representative, was forced to sit on the runway for two hours and wait for the bombers to safely exit the airspace, “the next time they come in for an oil meeting, they’re not going to mess with Bowman, they’ll go to Dickinson, which is outside the area,” he said.

There are gaps between the four areas of the proposed expansion, considered the “interstates in the air,” called victor routes. These gaps between the training areas provide a route for commercial and private aircraft to avoid the training space when traveling to airports outside of those areas. Those areas, however, are blocked off during the war game exercises.

Schaaf said if the expansion goes through, it’s going to immediately impact Bowman’s airport first. That will have a trickle down effect to surrounding communities.

The weather modification program ran by Bowman County also could be impeded as planes to seed clouds would not be able to take off if bombers are in the area.

Other areas of aviation that could be affected are wildlife management flights, which track deer and antelope movement, fire scouts that fly to direct fire trucks when there are grassfires, and crop dusters.


‘They just say they need increased space’

The original extent of the Powder River Training area includes sparsely populated areas of northwestern South Dakota, northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. The cities of Broadus and Ekalata also are encompassed by the area but sit right on the edge of the training area.

Four years ago, the Air Force proposed relatively the same expansion of Powder River and carried the plan all the way through to a public comment phase. The Air Force and Federal Aviation Authority received a deluge of letters and comments during that period and seemed to abandon the project.

“We must have gotten enough gripes into them and it dragged on for four years and we didn’t hear a thing,” Schaaf said. “All of a sudden, end of February, it pops up.”

This time around, the Air Force made changes to their plan, including designating Hettinger a “high” area, which is where the air tankers will be orbiting.

Schaaf stressed the importance of Bowman having that same “high” area, considering what happens during the training scenarios.

At 2,000 feet above ground, the bombers will release flare drops, which ultimately reach the ground below.

If an enemy has a heat-seeking missile, it will hone in on the exhaust of an airplane. In response, that plane would release flares and the missile would go after the flares instead of the aircraft.

The Air Force has said that 99 percent of flares released will burn up before it hits the ground.

“We say, tell me about the other 1 percent,” Schaaf said. “Is that going to start a grassfire or is that going to be a dud and a kid picks it up, lights it and burns his arm off?”

The other item released during training is called chaff.

Chaff is a bundle of miniature tinfoil that is released by aircraft if an enemy tracks and launches a missile based on its radar location. Once it’s shot out, instead of one airplane showing up on radar, now it’s a million. One chaff could contain about one million pieces of tinfoil, which fall to the ground.

“Some of these ranchers are concerned about it laying on your surface water and your stock dams,” Schaaf said.

Ten to 12 days a year, during war game training, aircrafts have permission to travel beyond the speed of sound, which produces a sonic boom. Depending on the aircraft’s altitude, sonic booms reach the ground two to 60 seconds after flyover.

With the official proposal, aircraft can’t reach supersonic levels unless it’s above 10,000 feet, “but you’re still going to get the boom down here,” Schaaf said.


The next step

The environmental impact report conducted for the expansion has not been released, which has raised questions why the Air Force chose to move forward on the planning of the expansion.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced earlier this year that the military would be experiencing a large drawdown of its activity, leading to some military bases around the country closing their doors. Either Ellsworth or Minot could be next on the base closure list, according to Schaaf.

“Perhaps senators in South Dakota are worried funding will be pulled,” he said. “(The senators) are scared, if they lose that base down there, how much income goes to the Rapid City area.”

The public comment period has been extended until May 5, which Schaaf said is a good thing. However, governors, senators and local government members may have input, but the ultimate decision rests in the hands of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Air Force.