Forum editorial: Air space proposal a 'concept'

The message that came out of a Washington meeting on the possibility of using North Dakota's vast air space for military aviation training was this: Cool your jets.

The message that came out of a Washington meeting on the possibility of using North Dakota's vast air space for military aviation training was this: Cool your jets.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., called the session to bring together the major players in the proposal, including Gov. John Hoeven, Air Force personnel and Northwest Airlines, the major commercial air carrier serving the state. When the meeting concluded, the consensus appeared to be progress was made, at least in fostering better understanding of what the air space would be and how aircraft would operate within it.

The proposal is relatively straightforward: The Pentagon would designate all the air space above North Dakota as a training area for its new generation of military aircraft. The location is ideal, supporters say, because the space is large enough to accommodate the needs of high performance jet fighters. Also, air traffic over North Dakota is light when compared to other parts of the country.

Military air space is nothing new in the state. There have been three discrete military training zones in the state for many years. Air training has been conducted in and around them without incident and mostly without notice.

Also, sophisticated air control technologies are capable of managing a large air space to accommodate the needs of commercial, private and military air traffic.


The difference in the new proposal is that the air space over the entire state would be designated a training area. It's an unprecedented concept that has attracted the interest of Pentagon brass, although no decision to proceed has been made.

Among the cautions that must be considered:

Northwest Airlines and United Airlines have legitimate concerns about how a statewide military air space would affect commercial air traffic. At this point, assurances the military use would have no signficant effect are not enough. Any threat to reliable and frequent commercial air service is a threat to the economic well-being of North Dakota's cities.

Secondly, North Dakotans are wondering what a statewide military training air space would mean to the cherished peace and quiet of the countryside. Advocates for the expansive air space note that an environmental statement to assess the impacts of sonic booms -- complete with public comments -- would be required.

But even those concerns are premature. The air space idea is little more than a concept. The Air Force has not begun the formal process to establish a need for the statewide air space. That's the first substantive step that must be made before the concept advances.

The Washington meeting Tuesday was useful in that it put into context the timeframe of the air space proposal. Nothing is imminent. If the Air Force wants to proceed -- and there is no guarantee it will -- the evolution from a concept to a working military air training space would take at least three years.

That's plenty of time to get it right and, more importantly, for North Dakotans to determine if they like the idea.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board

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