BAKER, Mont. – Russell Burdick had been interested in aeronautics for years, but it wasn’t until he was in his ’70s, after his wife had passed away, that he learned to pilot a plane.
But after earning his wings, investing in a hangar at the Baker Municipal Airport and building his own two-seater plane, Burdick is worried that his time spent in the skies may be threatened by the proposed expansion of the Powder River Training Complex, a military training space that serves the Ellsworth, S.D., and Minot, N.D., Air Force bases.
In late November, the U.S. Air Force finalized its long-awaited impact study that overviewed nearly every aspect of the 21.7 million acre expansion, paving the way for the plan’s final approval by the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration.
But while that plan has received widespread approval by federal lawmakers in the region – including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp – local aviators, airport administrators and residents in southwest North Dakota and southeast Montana are adamantly opposed to the plan, which they say is a federal overreach.
The proposed expansion would allow the Air Force to conduct large scale training missions with low altitude flights and supersonic runs over much of the region.
But while the Air Force has said large scale exercises would be limited to 10 days per year, local aviators and officials are concerned that the expanded training area could delay medical flights, interrupt business, undermine local airports and endanger the lives of pilots that fly smaller planes.
“I don’t think it should happen,” said Burdick as he showed off the red and white single prop plane. “I’m scared to death.”
Opposing the plan
According to the proposed plan, larger planes that operate by instrument flight rules would not be allowed in the airspace during training runs and smaller planes that fly by sight would be required to avoid military aircraft once they are in the air.
Roger Meggers, a local aviator who has led the fight against the proposed plan, said those rules could lead to hours of delays for larger planes – including medical flights – and deadly accidents for the pilots of smaller aircraft.
Meggers, who operates out of Baker, said that the “see and avoid” rules that the Air Force has suggested for smaller planes is absurd, considering the military aircraft – often camouflaged – will be flying faster than the 250-mile-per-hour speed under 10,000 feet.
With those speeds, Meggers said it would be “less than six seconds to go from a spec on the windshield to a mid-air collision.”
Dave Helland, a long-time pilot from Bowman, N.D., said the military’s attitude is: “We’re up here. Stay the hell out of our way.”
“This is extremely unpopular with the aviation community,” Helland said. “Collisions are a real serious deal.”
From an economic standpoint, those opposed to the plan say the training area – which would more than double in size – also impacts 38 smaller airports in the region, including the municipal airports in Baker and Bowman.
The administrators at the Baker and Bowman airports argue that planes using instrument flight rules would be unable to access their airports on many occasions, limiting the facilities’ profitability and appeal to corporate flights.
“When it’s active, they will virtually not be able to access our airport,” said Bob Morland, a Bowman Airport Authority board member.
Even worse, Morland said, is the fact that these rules could be finalized only months after Bowman’s new $14 million airport is set to open in May.
According to airport officials, both the Bowman and Baker airports have seen a rise in corporate traffic in recent years due to the number of oil company executives visiting the region.
But Morland said there is a real possibility that the proposed plan could destroy that uptick in service.
“That’s the primary reason we wanted to expand the airport, to handle business traffic,” Morland said. “We were expecting when we built the new airport to accommodate that future traffic.”
Other businesses that operate out of the two airports could also be affected, including aviation mechanics, environmental flight services and weather modification operations.
With the oil boom that is going on in western North Dakota and eastern Montana, Meggers said the Baker airport has become a centerpoint of environmental flights that check for oil leaks in pipelines or downed power lines.
Across the border, Morland said the Bowman airport has been a hot spot for weather modification businesses, where pilots release substances into oncoming clouds to lessen hail damage and increase rainfall.
Morland said Bowman County has one of the oldest weather modification programs in the country.
“There is nothing there to show us that they will allow that to continue,” Morland said.
Those opposed to the plan said they cannot understand why this expansion is moving forward now that the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan.
While they understand that the military needs to train, the local pilots and officials argue that there is more than enough space already available for the Air Force to train.
Morland argued that the real reason for the proposed expansion is to ensure the continued existence of the bases near Minot and Rapid City, S.D., something national lawmakers are eager to achieve.
But while the expansion protects the economic interests of those cities, Morland said it undermines the commerce and success of Bowman and Baker.
“Frankly, we’ve been abandoned by our congressional delegation and governor’s office,” Morland said.
Morland said the local aviation community is still pushing to have the plan dismissed or altered but he feels as if the odds are stacked against them.
Meggers said the plan is now in overdrive and if things go to plan, the military training space could be fully operational by the summer of 2015.
Meggers said the only way to change the plan is to get people to contact their congressional members and tell them to oppose it. He said their efforts have already led to more than 2,000 public comments.
Burdick said that he has submitted a letter stating his worry over collisions. But he said he wasn’t confident that it would make a difference.
“My flying is recreational, and this would take the recreation out of it,” Burdick said.
As a backup plan, Burdick has installed lights on the plane he built.
“If he’s gonna run over me, I’m gonna have him see me first,” Burdick said.