RAPID CITY, S.D. — Pilots, airport owners and businesses fear a new training space proposed by the Air Force where B1-B Lancers would fly at over 500 mph will endanger lives and livelihoods.
"At that speed you'd be like a mosquito on their windshield," said Ernie Clark, who flies his yellow and black Piper PA11 out of a small airport in Belle Fourche that will be under the new training area.
Clark worries that he and other pilots flying slow and low under the visual flight rules, or VFR, without instruments or radar will be put in dangerous positions. Other area pilot service companies also fear the new space could have a crushing impact on their business, since private flights will be rerouted and some will choose to avoid the small local airports altogether.
To give pilots more realistic training, the Air Force has proposed increasing their range from 7,000 to 28,000 square miles in South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. The training includes allowing supersonic flights and flybys as low as 500 feet.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations already require faster aircraft to yield to the slower planes, and the current Powder River area has never had a midair collision, said Col. Jeffrey Taliaferro, base commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base.
"I've seen Cessnas and small aircraft before while flying the B1," Taliaferro said, reminding pilots that the area will not be restricted for the VFR trips used frequently by crop dusters and ranchers to survey livestock or hunt coyotes.
Air Force documents indicate that midair encounters within the Powder River area become dangerous inside of two miles. At a combined closing speed of 600 mph, planes have about 12 seconds to avoid one another.
Taliaferro said pilots of small planes worried about the B1s can fly below the 500-foot ceiling for most of the agricultural needs.
"That's a really nice dream," said Heidi Williams of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association headquartered in Maryland. "To make a statement that civil aircraft can use that space below 500 feet when traveling for 60 to 70 miles is ridiculous."
Williams and the pilots association sent a letter to the Air Force on behalf of its 400,000 members opposing the plan last week. In a recent survey, Williams said pilots overwhelmingly responded that they would avoid active military operating areas.
Given that choice, pilots will choose to head to a small airport well away from the massive new space, said Ray Jilek, owner of Eagle Aviation at the Black Hills Airport in Spearfish.
Jilek said he stands to lose thousands of dollars from customers stopping for gas and from customers that will face longer flights and more fuel consumption that travel for business.
"One of my customers has already determined the cost for them to conduct their business will be in excess of $100,000 more per year if this goes through," Jilek said, adding that the Air Force's study of the small airport did not consider the impact of pilots having trouble accessing it through the massive space to its north.
Air Force documents state that the new plan will have "no impact on aircraft traffic" at the Black Hills Airport.
Jilek's opposition to the plan is joined by a mounting list of groups tied to aviation in the region. In North Dakota, the manager of the Bismarck Airport sent a letter in opposition to the expansion citing the interference with regional aviation, joining the manager at Dickinson Regional Airport.
In Montana, the Department of Transportation also opposes the plan due to the detrimental impact on small airports.
"We fear for our airport businesses in these areas since a majority of their income is transient fuel sales," said Debbie Alke, administrator for aeronautics at the MDT. "If aircraft have a choice, they'll go somewhere else."
Officials at Rapid City Regional Airport, which would not be included in the training area, are still studying its impact before issuing a decision to the FAA by the end of the month. Commercial flights out of the airport will likely not be impacted by the expansion due to its geography and ability to fly above the space.
Some have also expressed concerns about medical flights in the area. But emergency flights have priority in the air, said Jason Culberson at Black Hills Life Flight, which services Rapid City Regional Hospital.
Taliaferro said accommodations have already been made for private pilots, including corridors to route around active areas, and a procedure is being designed to help "de-conflict" with others flying at higher altitudes.
"You can fly over it, under it, and through corridors. There are a lot of alternatives," he said.