Bombers to train over Plains
BILLINGS, Mont. — Any given location across a sprawling area of the Northern Plains could see up to nine low-altitude overflights by military aircraft annually under a proposed expansion of an Air Force bomber training area detailed Friday.
Supersonic flights in the area would be limited to 10 days a year during large-scale exercises involving roughly 20 aircraft. Civilian flights would face sharp restrictions during those times.
Details of the Air Force plan emerged with the release of a long-awaited, 502-page environmental study of a proposal in the works since 2006.
The Powder River training area now spans about 8,300 square miles and can accommodate only one or two bombers at a time.
A much larger area that could be occupied by 20 bombers, fighters and tankers at once would create a more realistic environment where crews “would more readily train as they will fight,” the Air Force study concluded.
The Air Force wants to triple the size of its Powder River Training Complex to roughly 28,000 square miles. Thatwould include airspace over Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
It would be used by B-1 and B-52 bombers and could save the military $23 million a year by reducing the number of sorties now being sent to Utah and Nevada for exercises, officials said.
Friday’s study release kicked off a 30-day waiting period until a final decision is made by the Air Force. Federal Aviation Administration approval also is needed.
Elected officials from South Dakota have been supportive of the proposal. Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune has described the expansion as vital to keeping open Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City.
It has faced strong resistance from Montana elected leaders and state aviation officials. They say more bombers — conducting maneuvers and dropping flares and chaff as they roar overhead — would disrupt rural communities and scare livestock.