Touring Texoma: SAFB & Wind Farms

A bill that would do away with tax credits for companies building wind farms within 25 miles of military air space could be headed to Governor Greg Abbott's desk to become law.

The Texas House passed the bill on Tuesday after the companion bill passed by the Senate last month.

Since last spring, Sheppard officials and supporters have spoken out about two proposed Clay County wind farms they say would negatively impact training.

The Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training Program is the only internationally manned and managed fighter pilot training program in the world, hosted by the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard.

Lieutenant Colonel Matt Manning/SAFB:  It's an incredible time for these kids.  They love it.  They're here.  They have the passion for it, and it's important for them to be able to do it safely." 

Manning's talking about the intense 55-week training in T-6 and T-38 aircraft for around 320 fighter pilots a year whose safe return to base depends on air traffic controllers.

Manning:  "We have 14 nations as part of the ENJJPT program, and we promised them that we can execute safely as well." 

So, Colonel Manning says Sheppard owes it to them to try and educate and inform the public about their concerns over possible wind farms going up within 25 miles of the base.

Colonel Manning:  "There are two inside our 25-mile circle we're concerned with.  The first one is out near the Byers/ Petrolia area.  That's about 12 miles to the east of us.  Then, the second one is down here around Bluegrove, about 21 miles to the south."

Colonel Manning says because the tips of wind turbine blades can move around 200 miles per hour, they can show up on the radar  as aircraft or add to the clutter air traffic controllers must try to decipher.

Colonel Manning:  "The biggest danger comes within 25 miles because that's when our aircraft, our training aircraft are at our lowest altitudes as we're being vectored back in here to Sheppard, especially during bad weather days."

To get a better idea of the size of the wind farms in relations to T-38's and Texans, and the impact they can have on radar, Colonel Manning wanted to go ahead and take us up to a wind farm.

Staff Sergeant Eric Peterson/SAFB: "This is them right here.  They are departing and passing 4 thousand feet."

Colonel Manning:  "We're at 4500 feet, and those look pretty close."

Colonel Manning says wind farms like around Archer City and Vernon, though, start to fall below radar coverage because of the curvature of the Earth, which means planes don't get lost in the clutter.

Colonel Manning:  "You see how densely they're packed?  That's what creates that dense field of all of those returns.  So, if they were within that 25 miles, our radar would pick up all of these.  It would just be clutter on the scope.  So, anything flying through these wouldn't be seen.  Flying over it, in front of it, behind it, wouldn't be seen by the radar."

Peterson:  "If an aircraft is coming in obviously that's instrument approach, and I can't see them, if I'm losing a target on them or I have multiple targets on them and I'm not actually traffic, it's hard for me to keep them safe and efficiently do my job."

Colonel Manning:  "Just imagine those closer.  You know, in the blind spots, and getting our pilots this low to the ground with blind spots.  It's a little scary for us.  So, we're at 470 miles per hour, 500 feet above the ground right now."

It was about this time over Wilbarger County Colonel Manning spotted a low- flying helicopter off to the right and wondered if controllers could see it through clutter around the wind farm.

Colonel Manning:  "Altus approach Delco."  "Delco 1 go ahead."   "Yea, out of curiosity, we just saw a helicopter passing right through this Vernon wind farm.  Were you able to pick him up?"   "No actually, I'm getting some buffering off the wind farm.  I don't see a target down there."   "Oh copy, thanks."

Texas leads the country when it comes to wind farms as well as wind-related employment with over 25 thousand jobs.
        
Those in the wind power industry believe prohibiting local governments near military installations from offering tax breaks would basically take away local control from landowners, the counties, and schools, and give it to the state.

They believe builders already take the military's concerns into consideration.

Jeff Clark/Wind Coalition Executive Director:   "If in fact a wind project is incompatible or creates hazards or creates a lack of mission capability for the base they wouldn't proceed with the project."

Paul Rapp/V.P. of Development for Alterra Power Corp.  "The conclusion about whether a wind farm or a wind turbine negatively affect aviation, whether it's civil or military, needs to be assessed on a case by case basis, and there are lots of cases throughout the United States where wind farms coexist quite happily in close proximity to civilians and military installations."

Colonel Manning and Mayor Stephen Santellana have testified in Austin in favor of the bills, they say to protect the Sheppard training mission and the local economy.

Stephen Santellana/Wichita Falls Mayor:   "If right now putting windmills within 25 miles of an Air Force base affects the missions at Sheppard Air Force Base, they might find another location where it doesn't affect their mission. So yeah it's very impactful and it's huge for the city of Wichita Falls."
   
Colonel Manning: "Sheppard is not anti-green energy.  We need to just be smart where we put these, again, to protect our mission and to make sure we can do it safely."

Since Sheppard is a training base, Colonel Manning says the risks are different than at bases where pilots are more experienced.

At Sheppard, they're just learning how to fly, and with many of Sheppard's student controllers, pilots and instructors just learning the basics, as many ENJJPT students have low English skills, Colonel Manning says they'll continue to try and eliminate any additional risks the can.

Colonel Manning says it is possible to fool the radar into ignoring the clutter.

But, that would mean anything flying below 200 miles per hour would not be seen on radar either, such as commercial planes flying in and out of Wichita Falls Regional Airport, helicopters like Air Evac,  and small private planes.

He says that would just add to the already inherently dangerous training mission.
 


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