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The Tampa Tribune

Sights Set On Range


October 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Tampa Tribune. All rights reserved. 

The U.S. military is making Florida's Avon Park an increasingly popular target for pilots and gunners.

AVON PARK - The roar of jet fighters over the Avon Park Air Force Range may become a more familiar sound in the near future.

Controversy over another bombing range and changing needs of the military promise to put the sprawling range in the cross hairs of more and more pilots and artillery units.

And it could lead to another sound, ringing cash registers, as the increased numbers of troops spend money at local businesses.

"I'm hearing a lot more jets now, which makes me think of dollars flying over," said Louise England, executive director of the Highlands County Economic Development Commission. "With things heating up in Iraq and the closing of other bases, I think it will be used more. It can be used for any operations - from [Navy] SEALS, to flights, to ground troops."

The closing of the Navy's bombing range at Puerto Rico 's Vieques Island, recent improvements to the runway at the Avon Park range and a $2 million federal appropriation for a new bridge at the range entrance are expected to increase use of the largest gunnery and bombing range east of the Mississippi River.

The range has seen increased ground troop and air training since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R- Bartow.

"They have purchased new targets which are much more realistic," Putnam said last week. "They are constructing an urban target range which has target areas that look similar to what we may expect in Baghdad."

Live-fire exercises have been halted at Vieques , and President Bush has promised the Navy will stop training there by May in the wake of protests that began after a civilian security guard was killed by an errant bomb in 1999. The Navy has moved its live bomb drops to Eglin Air Force Base, about 40 miles east of Pensacola.

Adm. Robert J. Natter, head of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said earlier this month that exercises from Vieques Island will be shifted to ranges at sea and bases on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The 164-square-mile Avon Park range, about 90 miles southeast of Tampa, is included in those plans, Putnam said.

Local businesses provide supplies to the range, which is in Polk and Highlands counties, and some military personnel visiting the range stay in local motels.

"Increased utilization of the range is a boon to the local economy," Putnam said. "And it helps make sure that our troops are the best trained in the world."

The 8,000-foot runway at the range reopened in March after undergoing repairs, and Congress appropriated $2 million to replace the World War II-vintage wooden bridge at the main entrance to the range, off County Road 64. Fully loaded fuel trucks and other heavy equipment cannot cross the old bridge. The only other entrance is a badly conditioned single-lane road about 12 miles out of the way for most range users and employees.

"We'll see increased use," said Range Operations Officer Ken Beers.

Beers said the latest information is that the Navy will use the range for three nine-day periods a year, dropping training ordnance and maybe shooting guns. The planes will fly off aircraft carriers in the Atlantic and the Gulf, he said.

For the past few weeks, ground forward air controllers from the 165th Air Support Operations Squadron based in Brunswick, Ga., have been training at the range, using lasers and radios to guide F-16s, Beers said. The jets are flying out of an Air Force Reserve base in Homestead, he said.

Live bombs are not used at Avon Park, where practice bombs explode with a puff of white smoke.

Any decision to use live bombs would be made by the Pentagon, Putnam said, and would require a lot of community input.

Mark McDuff, a business development representative for the Polk County Office of Economic Development, helped obtain a $400,000 state grant for design and engineering of the new bridge entrance, which lies within Polk County.

"You have to believe that with other ranges no longer available, and the range mission needing to continue, that the importance of the Avon Park range is going to become more significant," he said.

Dave Greenslade, executive director of the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce, said he could not predict how much Avon Park businesses might benefit if use of the range increased. "I think the range always has had a positive economic impact on the community, and I would hope that would continue," he said.

The Avon Park range was developed by the Army Air Corps in 1941 and at its peak in 1943 had about 6,500 military personnel. Today, the range is run by 75 federally employed civilians and has barracks space for 68 people. The range is under control of the Air Combat Command at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga.

Today, the range is used by the Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Florida National Guard for training.

Use of the range started to slide, particularly after MacDill Air Force Base lost its fighter wing about 10 years ago. Beers said that in the late 1980s, as many as 20,000 sorties a year were flown at the range, compared with about 2,500 sorties a year now.

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