Having military bombers frequent the skies only 500 feet above Bowman County is not an easy thing to swallow and Bowman County Commissioners are not giving in without a fight.
The county commissioners relayed their concerns over the proposed Powder River Training Complex expansion in a conference call with a legislative assistant of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., during the board’s regular meeting Dec. 16.
During the approximately one-hour call, several of the commissioners directed specific questions and distresses to Eric Bursch, Heitkamp’s military affairs adviser, in an effort to give a voice to Bowman County.
Rodney Schaaf, a retired pilot and president of the Bowman Airport Authority, joined commissioners on the call as he explained that sometimes in the eyes of Washington, D.C., “it seems like our voice isn’t heard out here.”
Schaaf has been an opponent of several of the U.S. Airforce’s restrictions as they shaped their expansion plan since 2006. While Schaaf said he supports the military’s need for training, the proposed plan proves unsavory for Bowman County and its effects would be widespread.
Of chief concern for Schaaf and several of the commissioners was the low altitude at which the military’s B-1 bombers could fly: 500 feet above ground.
“Our issue down here is the 500 foot elevation,” Commissioner Lynn Brackel told Bursch. “I’m wondering why we have a blanket coverage of that 500 foot elevation, five days a week, all year long, when we know it’s not going to (be) used.”
Bursch said he awaited clarification on that point from the Air Force.
After public hearings on the expansion project, the Air Force released its final environmental impact statement last month in which the Air Force laid out its alternatives to the original plan, but indicated that they favor Modification A. That modification would allow aircraft to travel at harrowingly low altitudes over Bowman County.
The U.S. Air Force had a minimum of 30 days from the release of the report on Nov. 28 to make a final decision on its modification and submit that to the Federal Aviation Authority for their approval.
Bursch said during the call that he expects the Air Force to announce its decision Dec. 29 and that the FAA would render their verdict no sooner than Feb. 15. The FAA’s decision is final.
In an attempt to amass any remaining concerns over the project, Bursch setup the conference call with the commissioners so Heitkamp would receive the concerns of those impacted. Bursch said she would then draft a formal letter to the U.S. Air Force for their consideration.
One of the biggest concerns from Schaaf was related to civilian air traffic in the low-fly regions. The Air Force explained in the impact statement that NOTAMs (notices to airmen) would be issued prior to any activation of the airspace for training.
Schaaf said that is nowhere near adequate.
“In the 502-page impact release, which I read every sentence, they keep throwing this 240 day operations at us,” Schaaf told Bursch. “With weekends off, that’s going to be used year-round.”
Along with the amount of time the airspace would be utilized, the system to notify aircrafts that the space is in use is abysmal.
“It looks good on paper, but it won’t work,” he said.
Bursch indicated that there is a special use airspace website that will have the schedule for the use of the PRTC.
Pilots would have to reach 6,500 feet above ground to talk to air traffic controllers and receive indication that the airspace was in use, which Schaaf said most do not usually do on a given day.
Schaaf referred to the expansion plans as a “dog and pony show” as he explained that representatives from the county, himself included, previously voiced the same concerns during the public comment period but, when the impact statement was released, nothing was changed.
“I got the impression that it was just shoved down our throats — we’re going to take that 500 feet anyway,” he said.
Schaaf laid out several reccomendations for Heitkamp to relay to the Air Force including moving the low-fly zone east 50 miles, or put in an area over Wall, S.D. If that’s not feasible, Schaaf explained they could simply raise the 500-foot restriction and “90 percent of the problem would be resolved.” Otherwise, the Air Force could change the schedule of the 500-foot flights to predetermined, rotating days each week or install a remote transmitter in aircrafts.
Installation of an advanced remote transmitter could take a year from approval, said Bursch, but the Air Force wouldn’t utilize the low space over Bowman until radars were installed.
Another solution would be to give a direct contact number for Ellsworth Air Force Base’s operations center so pilots could see in real-time if the airspace is active with bombers.
“A big problem with this whole process, and I told the Air Force this before, they haven’t done a really good job to make sure that impacted folks can understand part of the strategy,” Bursch admitted to commissioners.