The oil boom brought Bakken commuting private jets to tiny Baker, but officials say Air Force plans for a South Carolina-sized training area over much of Eastern Montana could quiet the town’s small airport.

“It’s sure going to present some serious issues,” said Roger Meggers, airport manager. High, fast-flying jets rely on instrument flight rules, or IFR. Meggers said that kind of flying into Baker won’t be possible whenever Air Force bombers deployed for training from Ellsworth Air Force Base are in the area.

“The jet traffic that’s in and out of this airport cannot transition through here if they can’t fly IFR,” Meggers said.

The airport manager said he expects to know by the end of June if the Federal Aviation Administration will authorize the Air Force’s Powder River Training Complex, a bomber training area sprawling over much of southeastern Montana and the Dakotas.

The Powder River Training Complex is a 28,000-square-mile training area for B-1B Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress bombers, which fly out of Ellsworth and Minot Air Force bases in South and North Dakota. The Air Force would like to use the area 244 days a year, 44.5 hours a week for bomber training, plus the occasional aerial war games with other military aircraft.

Ranchers and private pilots in Montana and the Dakotas have been outspoken in opposing PRTC. There are 33 small airports in the flight area, sacred tribal lands and the Little Bighorn battlefield. At their lowest, the bombers would fly at 500 feet. The Air Force is also requesting that pilots be allowed to fly faster than the speed of sound, something presently not allowed over land anywhere in the U.S.

Meggers said the Air Force needs the training area to gird Ellsworth from federal budget cuts and potential base closure. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., has pushed hard to get the training area approved.

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, both Democrats, have written the FAA opposing the training area and criticizing aviation administrators for only accepting public comment by printed letter, instead of allowing comment by email.

Congressman Steve Daines, R-Mont., hasn’t ruled out supporting the PRTC, but presented conditions that would have to be met before he would get behind the bomber training complex.

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.

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