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Big Sky Above Ellsworth Air Force Base Attracts Visiting Aircraft

A B-1, a B-2 and a B-52 fly in formation over Ellsworth Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Marc Feliz)
A B-1, a B-2 and a B-52 fly in formation over Ellsworth Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Marc Feliz)

RAPID CITY, S.D. — The recent expansion of airspace around the Ellsworth Air Force Base in southwestern South Dakota is attracting welcome visitors from the U.S. military.

The so-called Powder River Training Complex, which opened late last year, has been bringing in numerous aircraft from around the country. The first-ever practice session at Ellsworth for Navy Growler jets was held Friday.

Lt. Col. Allen Geist, commander of the 390th Electronic Combat Squadron based at Whidbey Island, Washington, was among 150 visiting personnel who were engaged in the Growler mission. Geist, who grew up in South Dakota, told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/29XQvgG ) that he enjoyed the view from the back seat of a Growler.

"The Powder River Training Complex is one of the premier airspaces in the nation," Geist said.

The airspace was roughly quadrupled in size last year to cover nearly 35,000 square miles of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The expansion was long sought by supporters of Ellsworth who hoped the bigger territory would help solidify the base's future and keep it off closure lists.

Military officials say the airspace is especially attractive to two-man Growler crews because it has an electronic warfare range. Real electronic signals can be emitted inside the range for the Growler crews to practice jamming enemy radar and weapons.

Geist said the technology also can help the bigger B-1B Lancers — bombers that are stationed at Ellsworth — slip in and out of enemy areas that might otherwise be too dangerous.

"We can make the B-1 more lethal by giving them access to enemy-denied areas," Geist said.

Not everyone was immediately on board with the expanded training. Some ranchers complained that the training exercises disrupt their operations, and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association in February petitioned Air Force officials to provide more information to ranchers.

Since then the group said it is satisfied with steps by the military to better inform ranchers, such as posting notices in local newspapers

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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