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The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission said the expansion of an Air Force bomber training facility over the southwest corner of the state could affect aviation operations.

“We didn’t actually say we oppose it but we have our concerns,” said Kyle Wanner, commission director.

If the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex is approved, eight southwestern North Dakota counties could have air traffic interruptions as the Air Force uses 28,000 square miles of air space for bomber training runs.

“The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission understands the need for military operations areas and the continual training of airmen within the Air Force,” the commission said in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. “The overall goal of the Commission is to work towards the prevention of any negative impacts to the North Dakota aviation community.”

The current space can accommodate one or two bombers at a time. Because of this, B-1B Lancers from South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base and B-52 Stratofortress bombers from North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base have had to fly to Utah or Nevada for their combat exercises.

The Air Force would use the space a minimum of three hours and up to six hours daily, 240 days a year. Planes flown by visual-certified rather than instrument-certified pilots would be under restrictions during those hours.

At the same time, local air traffic is now busier than ever in western North Dakota because of oil activity and is only expected to increase.

The complex is centered just northwest of where South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana meet, and spans about 8,300 square miles. The expansion would add airspace over Bowman, Slope, Grant, Adams and Hettinger counties and the southern portions of Stark, Golden Valley and Billings counties in North Dakota.

The Bowman Airport likely will be most affected. The new $14 million airport would be in an area where bombers could fly at an altitude from 500 feet up to 12,000 feet. Besides its normal air traffic, the airport has medical flights.

“These outreach life-saving medical services are vitally needed in this rural area and the dependability of air access is important to the city of Bowman and the outlying communities in the area,” the commission letter reads.

Bowman’s weather modification cloud seeding program also could be affected. Cloud seeding attempts to change the amount or type of precipitation that falls in an area by dispersing substances into the air that help water transition from a vapor to a liquid, encouraging more rain for farming use.

Because the program needs to be able to operate at all times, it could be affected by bomber flight hours. Program pilots also need to fly close to clouds and sometimes need instrumental flight rules clearance, which is not permitted in the training area during bomber flight hours.

If the expansion were allowed to go through the commission requested raising the airspace to a minimum altitude to 8,000 feet.

Other concerns brought up by the commission include: lack of low altitude radar coverage in the state, insufficient communication of when the training area is active, affects on air traffic in and out of Dickinson’s airport, and affects on aerial crop sprayers when they must move into a higher altitude flying between fields.

Though the recently designated North Dakota Unmanned Aircraft Systems test site is in Grand Forks, the commission also raised concerns any research proposed in the southwest could be affected.

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com.

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Business Reporter