North Dakota Pilots Protest UAV Airspace Grab

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You'd think there would be plenty of airspace to go around in North Dakota, one of the most sparsely inhabited states in the U.S., but pilots there are protesting a plan to create some large new restricted areas near Grand Forks that would enable the military to operate unmanned aerial vehicles there. Hearings held last week drew about 150 people, and many aviators expressed concern over the proposal. Paul Hanson, president of the North Dakota Pilots Association, asked Air Force officials to limit the restricted airspace as much as possible, according to the Grand Forks Herald. Doug Albright, a member of the Air Force team working on the Environmental Impact Statement, said the USAF is proposing a new way of restricting the airspace, in three layers. The bottom layer would be from 6,000 to 10,000 feet MSL, a second layer to 14,000 feet, and a third layer to 18,000. When one section was being used by a UAV, civilian aircraft could still freely use the other two levels, he said. The three proposed areas each cover chunks of airspace about 40 by 50 miles. Several transit areas are also proposed.

The Air Force has published its draft Environmental Impact Statement online. Comments will be accepted until March 1. During an earlier draft of the North Dakota proposal, AOPA said creating large restricted areas to segregate UAVs is not the best way to ensure safety. "We have concerns about any plan that would close airspace to civilian traffic so [UAVs] can fly," said Pete Lehmann, AOPA manager of air traffic services, in November 2008. "Surveys have shown that 77 percent of our members, or more than half the U.S. pilot population, would rather fly with certified unmanned aircraft rather than be subject to flight restrictions." The current USAF proposal offers several alternative scenarios for how the areas would be implemented, some of which would affect up to 120 civilian aircraft operations per day.