The challenges facing civilian and military users of a large block of special-use airspace in four western states came into sharper focus at a joint industry-military meeting held to air the results of a survey of the area’s aviation community.
About 70 percent of general aviation pilots who fly often in the 28,000-square-mile Powder River Training Complex, which includes parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, said they have experienced adverse impacts on their flight operations, according to the member survey conducted by AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association. Pilots who flew less in the airspace, classified in groups that used the airspace fairly often, occasionally, or almost never, recorded progressively fewer complaints.
Major findings from the 329 survey responses submitted by pilots and aviation businesses in the four states turned up issues including inefficient routings that cost time and money; lack of information about the active or inactive status of the special-use airspace; pilots who flew VFR reporting being “dropped by air traffic control in parts of the SUA at lower altitudes”; and ATC sometimes vectoring pilots into severe weather in narrow transit corridors.
“The survey reveals opportunities for the military, ATC, and GA pilots to make improvements that will mitigate many of these reported issues in the PRTC SUA,” the document notes.
Given the size of the SUA and its impact on nonparticipating flights, local operators emphasized their view that the FAA and the military could do more to enhance the safety and efficiency of nonparticipants’ flight operations in the SUA.
“This was the first time that an economic-impact value could be placed on the airspace,” said Lewis. “Having this data was very important to meaningful conversation. One operator said that over a year’s period, $20,000 extra in operating costs had been incurred due to the SUA and ATC routings.”
Suggested improvements included better communication about the SUA’s activation status; additional pilot education outreach by aviation associations and the military; and ATC infrastructure improvements to address spotty radar and communications at lower altitudes.
A possible technological solution to address the scarcity of timely information on airspace status could involve using text-based messages, perhaps integrated with other sources of data pilots use in preflight planning, to keep pilots up to date.
Despite the radar coverage gaps, most VFR pilots said they would use flight following services in the SUA.
All of the GA airspace users made it clear that while safety improvements are possible, they support the military and its need to conduct training exercises.
Looking to the future, said Lewis, “The consensus was that an advisory panel composed of the affected parties may be a better option than large open meetings to achieve some change or action. We want to ensure our conversations with the military remain meaningful and productive.”
Those in attendance at the April 5 meeting included Ray Jilek, AOPA’s Airport Support Network volunteer and airport manager at Black Hills-Clyde Ice Field in Spearfish, South Dakota; Heidi Williams, NBAA director of air traffic services and infrastructure; representatives from the FAA’s Minneapolis Airports District Office, Salt Lake City Air Route Traffic Control Center, and Rapid City Flight Standards District Office; the Bowman (North Dakota) Regional Airport Authority; staff from Baker Air Service in Baker, Montana; Benjamin “Flash” Wilford, a B–1 pilot and flight safety coordinator for the 28th Bomb Wing; George “CHIA” Stone of the Operations Support Squadron; Montana State Aviation Director Tim Conway; Jon Becker and Jack Dokken of South Dakota’s aeronautics office; North Dakota State Aviation Director Kyle Wanner; Montana Pilots Association President Peter Smith; and members of the South Dakota Aviation Commission.