The proposed massive expansion of training airspace for Ellsworth Air Force Base — a move that many say will protect the future of the base — has entered a “final step,” according to U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
Thune said on Wednesday he hopes approval of the airspace expansion, which could come in mid-February, will solidify the position of Ellsworth, the Black Hills' largest employer. The base was saved from closure in 2005 after being targeted by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
Thune said Air Force officials informed him Wednesday that a final environmental impact statement on the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex will be issued Nov. 28. That will close a six-year review process.
Thirty days after the statement is issued, the Air Force will make its final decision. Then, the Federal Aviation Administration has up to 45 days to decide on approval.
If the Air Force approves, and the FAA takes all 45 days, the final approval could come on Feb. 11, 2015.
“I’m not ever going to say there isn’t something that could come up along the way,” Thune said Wednesday, “but clearly at this point now, there’s a lot more certainty to this than there has been in the past.”
The base is about 12 miles northeast of Rapid City.
The Air Force in 2008 formally proposed the expansion, but Thune has been working on the plan with Air Force officials since 2006. He brought U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who oversees the FAA, to Ellsworth Air Force Base on Nov. 11.
Thune predicted on Wednesday that if all goes according to plan, the expanded airspace could be ready for use in the spring or summer.
Ellsworth has an estimated $350 million annual economic impact in South Dakota, and the base has about 3,500 active-duty military personnel and employs about 1,500 civilians.
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The expansion will quadruple the size of the existing airspace to an area of about 20 million acres lying northwest of Rapid City and spanning parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. It will be the largest training airspace over the continental United States, Thune said.
The expansion would change little at the base itself, Thune said, except for adding periodic visits from aircraft using the new airspace. The Air Force has said the expanded airspace will improve its training capability, and consolidation of far-flung training flights annually could save an estimated $20 million in fuel costs.
Some ranchers, Native Americans and civilian pilots are concerned about increased noise, congested airspace and other effects of the expansion. Following numerous public meetings and comment periods, the proposal was modified to resolve some of those concerns.
Marvin Kammerer, who owns a ranch bordering Ellsworth Air Force Base, is an outspoken critic of the proposal. Wednesday, he called it “another growth of the military-industrial complex” that will not improve national security and will harm rural quality of life, rural airports and agriculture.
“All it amounts to is another concept to try to keep this base open,” Kammerer said, “and that’s a terrible thing to put on rural America.”
Thune and Air Force officials have said the expanded airspace would improve Ellsworth’s readiness by allowing base air crews to conduct 85 percent of their training in their own backyard rather than splitting training runs among various airspaces in other parts of the country.
The existing Powder River airspace is the primary training area for B-1 bombers from Ellsworth and B-52s from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The airspace’s current size allows only two B-1s to train together, according to the draft environmental impact statement, but the expanded airspace would allow four to eight B-1s to train simultaneously. Large-force exercises could be conducted with up to 20 aircraft of various types.
Numerous restrictions would be placed on the expanded airspace. To avoid affecting commercial flights, no military aircraft would go above 26,000 feet. The lowest allowable altitude would be 500 feet, with higher minimums in some areas.
Supersonic flights, which can produce sonic booms, would be limited to large-force exercises occurring no more than 10 times per year at minimum altitudes of 10,000 feet for fighters and 20,000 feet for bombers. Ellsworth would issue public notices 30 days prior to those exercises.
Community airports would be allowed to conduct normal operations through corridors in the airspace except for a few days per year. Thune’s office has reported that because the military operations would be spread over such a large area, most ranchers and other residents below the airspace would be aware of an aircraft over their property only once or twice per year.