Ranchers ask for more Air Force flight information

A South Dakota livestock organization is petitioning U.S. Air Force officials to provide more information to ranchers who monitor their herds and land by air in a newly expanded training zone.

The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association’s request to officials at Ellsworth Air Force Base this week addresses the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex, which roughly quadrupled the training airspace to nearly 35,000 square miles in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming — the largest over the continental U.S.

Stockgrowers President Bill Kluck said Air Force officials committed to making flight information available to ranchers who fly small aircraft to survey their herds and hunt coyotes, but said they have not effectively followed through. Kluck said a website set up to inform pilots about training missions is not updated regularly and that it’s difficult to call the base directly for information.

“All of that has to be kept very current, or somebody’s going to get hurt because of it,” he said. “They have to know if they’re up there or not.”

Officials at Ellsworth didn’t respond to questions from The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The Air Force has said any given location across the training area could experience up to nine low-altitude overflights annually. Supersonic flights would be limited to 10 days a year during large-scale exercises, which could cause up to as many as 88 civilian flights a day to be delayed, though the Air Force said that number would likely be smaller.

Kluk said there haven’t been any incidents so far, but that some pilots have told him they voluntarily grounded themselves after realizing missions were taking place nearby.

Larry Nelson, who surveys his cattle and sheep operation in northwestern South Dakota in his single-engine airplane, said he hasn’t received any information from Ellsworth about how to check whether it’s safe to fly. While he uses a Federal Aviation Administration website to monitor training activity, he said it’s not very intuitive and the Air Force should be better at working with civilian pilots in the region.

“If I was a recreational flier, I would be happy to wait until I knew the Air Force was not in the area, but I am not a recreational pilot,” he said. “This has to do with me being able to keep track of my business here in a cost-effective way.”

Kluck said the Stockgrowers Association has been criticized in the past from people who think it’s opposed to the base and its training operations.

“We’re very pro-military as a whole and do not want to see it shut down,” he said. “We just want to make sure that we’re protected.”