For the first time, air space above southwestern North Dakota will be used for a large force military training exercise.
If it weren’t so high up starting at 12,000 feet and going to 26,000 feet, the bombers, refueling tankers and fighter jets zipping around up there might be quite a spectacle for folks living from Bowman to Amidon to Marmarth. As it is, the best clue in the sky will be the jet contrails.
“If they’re straight, those are from commercial jets. If it’s us, the contrails will be orbital,” said Ellsworth spokesman Master Sgt. John Barton.
The space will be used from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday and Thursday, when Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Minot Air Force Base practice evasive maneuvers in the newly expanded Powder River Training Complex — essentially the airspace above the four-corners region of the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.
After a four-year environmental study, the FAA agreed to the expansion in September. It quadrupled the military’s available air space, spreading it for the first time into North Dakota from Montana to past Carson on the east. However, Bowman County is the furthest reach of the upcoming exercise.
Barton said the exercise will not involve supersonic speeds, so there’ll be much less volume than if it did. He also said it hasn’t been determined whether the crafts will deploy any flares or chaff during the exercise. The fluttering chaff is used to foil radar interference. Ranchers used to complain about it because it littered grazing pastures, but Barton said the product used now disintegrates in the air.
The exercise will involve F-16 fighter jets, E3 AWACS surveillance and command jets, KC-135 refueling tankers, RC-135 intelligence-gathering craft, and B-1 and B-52 bombers.
Barton said the military doesn’t reveal how many craft will be involved in the exercise and is limited to using the space 10 times annually.
Regional airports have been alerted that the military will take control of the air space during those hours, but it may not affect local air traffic because of the short time span and the altitude of the exercise, Barton said.