Renewable energy and Air Force flying operations -- meeting in the middle for the best outcome

  • Published
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Emerging renewable energy interests and long-standing military mission requirements can coexist. But it takes subject matter experts on both sides to make it work without adversely impacting military readiness and national defense objectives.

As interest in renewable energy grew across the state over the last several years, the Oklahoma legislature began reviewing impacts on military airspace utilization. In April 2018 state lawmakers enacted legislation authorizing state-level input into the location process for renewable energy projects.

Proposed developments sometimes have the potential to impinge on current military training routes and airspace. When that happens, the developer and representatives from the state and the base work to deconflict locations of individual turbines, and sometimes entire projects, to ensure everyone’s safety.

Government objections driving location conflicts can vary from project to project, but usually involve the following:

NEXRAD – Radar used by Vance Air Force Base and National Weather Service forecasters to predict weather outcomes.

The NEXRAD radar is located at Kegelman Auxiliary Airfield, near Jet, Oklahoma. Projects located between the base and Kegleman can compromise weather warnings not only for Vance AFB, but for communities in Garfield, Kingfisher and Logan counties.

Weather forecasters can have a hard time seeing the type and severity of the storms coming in from the west.

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) – The very basic set of rules all pilots, both civilian and military, learn and operate under.

These rules are designed to help pilots avoid obstructions and other aircraft while in flight. Vance AFB pilots perform VFR flights to teach students how to land the aircraft and maximize training and airspace and on low-level routes.

Weather plays a role in this, as pilots need to see the ground to identify points of reference and to follow specific routes to land at the airfield. When turbines are placed within a route/pattern, pilots have to fly 500 feet over them to ensure flight safety and conform to federal VFR regulations.

On days when the clouds are low, pilots have to fly higher, taking the “visual” part out of training.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) -- Rules applicable where the pilot operates the aircraft primarily using instruments. To fly IFR pilots do not need to see outside the cockpit and instead rely on the aircraft’s instruments and radar controllers on the ground.

When located within 50 miles of Vance AFB, the spinning blades of wind turbines can have a significant impact on the air traffic control radar, both military and civilian, to include showing up as false aircraft signatures and weather.

The danger in each of these is not that there’s nothing there, but that there could be something there. That something could be a dangerous thunderstorm, or an aircraft not in communication with air traffic control, which could lead to a mid-air collision.

Military Training Routes (low-levels) – These “sky highways” are purely military in nature, and are used to teach students to learn to fly low to the ground -- 500 feet above ground level -- as a tactic to avoid being detected by the enemy.

These training routes have been used for almost 60 years and are configured to avoid populated areas and have minimal environmental impacts.

As more and more projects are completed, the effect is not simple or isolated. As each project is built, the effects on both military and civilian airspace and radar returns are exponential and cumulative. The airspace affected is larger than the physical footprint, depending on location and mission impact.

Radar, be it air traffic control or NEXRAD, doesn’t “see” three large groups of turbines, it sees thunderstorms, even on a clear day, based upon the type and amount of turbines and their spacing.

With this “cumulative effect,” projects approved years ago as having no impact are now being reevaluated based upon mission requirements and flying safety concerns.

There are both positive and negative aspects to both sides of the conversation about locations for renewal energy equipment in Oklahoma.

Vance AFB will continue to work with renewable energy developers and state and local leadership to promote a safe flying environment consistent with national defense objectives while still promoting local commerce and respecting landowner rights.