Military Aerial Corridors over Oklahoma at Risk

Over the open skies of the state, there is an undetectable treasure that most Oklahoman’s are not even aware of. Just below the state’s wispy cloud deck, the United States Air Force (USAF) is using airspace to conduct low-level training critical to the development of Air Force pilots. Far more than one would think, this training is being carried out within designated highways in the sky that cannot be replaced.  In addition to these highways each base has a race track-like traffic pattern around it to allow pilots to safely land, takeoff, and maneuver around the base.   These highways, racetracks, and military cargo drop zones, are collectively known as low-level military training airspace (MTA).

These highways are called military training routes (MTRs).  MTRs are divided into Instrument Routes (IR), Visual Routes (VR), and Slow Speed Routes (SR). The difference between the IR and VR routes is that IR routes are flown using instruments in the cockpit to simulate flying in cloud cover, while VR routes are flown in clear conditions with the pilot visually looking out the windshield.  Airspeed below 10,000 feet is limited to 250 knots. This limit impedes most modern-day tactical military aircraft training operations, since low-level strikes are conducted almost exclusively at speeds exceeding 300 knots. These critical military training operations are, however, allowed at airspeeds above 250 knots in MTRs.

During the legislative session, Senate Bill 477 by Senator Joe Newhouse of Broken Arrow and Representative Charles Ortega of Altus, was introduced to ensure tall structures being built within this MTA are compatible with the required training to ensure the readiness of our Air Force. This measure would protect the integrity of the state’s military air bases, their low-level military training routes, military drop zones, and military traffic patterns, by adding a requirement to the state’s existing airport and airspace zoning regulations to include the permitting of structures in the MTA.   If the Air Force cannot use this MTA, the value of Altus and Vance Air Force Bases, whose mission is the training and readiness of pilots, is severely undermined, and they are in jeopardy in any looming BRAC round.

According to the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission’s Airport Development Division manager, Grayson Ardies, MTRs occupy less than 20% of the state’s airspace.  Ardies, who provided technical assistance on the issue, said “SB 477 is not a prohibition of construction underneath or within MTA. The bill would ensure the mutual co-existence of the Air Force’s mission with the construction of tall structures.  An entity would be required to obtain a permit from the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission (OAC) if they want to build a structure above a certain height underneath or within MTA. SB 477 would serve to protect MTA, a critical state asset, from development that is incompatible with the use of this MTA.”

OAC already administers a permitting process for tall structures through its “Aircraft Pilot and Passenger Protection Act” (APPPA) that ensures structures in the vicinity of public-use airports, including military airports, are compatible with aircraft operations.  SB 477 extends the APPPA permitting process to military training airspace.

Mike Cooper, chairman of the Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, said, “The protection of this military training airspace is critical to the ability of the Air Force to fulfill its training mission.”  He believes state officials must do what they can to protect this invaluable state and national defense asset. Oklahoma’s three Air Force bases have an annual economic impact in excess of $19 billion. This MTA has existed for many years and is environmentally assessed for minimal impact and built to avoid both congested airspace and population centers. USAF MTA maximizes safety, minimizes environmental impact, and ensures combat readiness.

The wind industry at the State Capitol ultimately prevented SB 477 from being passed this session. Wind has a primary interest because it has already constructed a significant number of wind turbines within and under MTA, and has many more under construction, or proposed. The wind industry argues that a division within the Department of Defense (DoD) already has a process to protect MTA, and that nothing else is needed. This division doesn’t have the authority to prohibit the erection of a structure that may diminish the value of military training airspace. DoD requires that a proposed structure must impact national security before it can officially object to such construction.  Therefore, bases such as Altus and Vance cannot object to a structure because their mission to train pilots for deployment to military theatres does not rise to the level of impacting national security according to current DoD interpretation.

OAC’s permitting history under APPPA, which only requires permits for certain structures in the vicinity of public-use airports within the state, shows it has been very fair.  To date, OAC has denied only 16% of the of the permit applications.  That denial rate drops to 10% if you only consider the applications for wind turbines. SB 477 would protect MTA, a critical state and national defense asset, from development that is incompatible with the use of this MTA.

Victor Bird, director for OAC emphasized, “Unfortunately, the way ahead with respect to protecting Oklahoma’s military training airspace has been temporarily put on hold. The wind energy industry rallied and, frankly, was just simply able to outman us at the Capitol. It erroneously contended that the effort of the state to ensure the compatibility of development with ability of the Air Force to fulfill its mission of training and readiness at Altus and Vance Bases amounted to a taking of property.”

Bird said another argument that routinely came up at the Capitol was that the federal process works great. His question is works great for whom? The fallacy of that argument is readily apparent in a map showing the MTRs assigned to Vance AFB and how they have been compromised by the wind turbines already constructed, and how they will be further compromised by the turbines being constructed and proposed. This story repeats itself with respect to Altus AFB. That this MTA will be further undermined by wind turbines under construction and proposed is of great concern to those that are trying to preserve this critical asset.

OAC has also received crucial technical support from Altus and Vance AFBs and the 138th Fighter Wing at the Tulsa Air National Guard base. Tinker AFB uses several of these routes that are assigned to Vance and Altus.

Bird said, “The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld land-use regulations/zoning that adversely affected real property interests as a proper exercise of a state’s police power to promote and protect public health, safety, and welfare. A state or local government can go too far, but as I’ve previously said that is not the case here as OAC is proposing to narrowly exercise zoning authority to restrict certain developments only in low-level MTRs, drop zones, and military traffic patterns where such development could impair the ability of the military to fulfill its mission and would create unnecessary risks to military and civilian life. If it were an absolute prohibition or the agency was attempting to restrict development in all so-called military airspace , then that may be too far as the Supreme Court has said in the few cases in which it has found the land-use/zoning restriction in question invalid.”