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The Palm Beach Post

Navy Made To Feel At Home On The Range; 'The More Training Here, The Less Blood Will Be Shed Over There,' Says A Resident Of Frostproof


March 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved. 

High-tailing out of its infamous bomb range in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Navy has set its sights near the rolling citrus groves of this little town, which prides itself as the only Florida city ever bombed by the military.

Here, with the war machine in full swing, the sense of patriotism is as thick as the perfume of orange blossoms. And locals are greeting the Navy like a new team coming for spring training.

The field, though, is the 166-square-mile Avon Park Air Force Range. The equipment: F-18 and F-14 attack jets firing Hellfire missiles, 2,000-pound bunker-busters and machine gun bullets nearly half the size of a baseball bat.

The objective: elevate aircraft carrier-based attack groups to battle readiness anywhere in the world.

The Navy used to conduct those tests on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. But in 1999, an F-18 pilot mistakenly dropped two live bombs on the range's observation post, killing a civilian guard and injuring four others. Protests erupted, and now the Navy plans to withdraw by May 1.

The story doesn't faze Shirley Hopp, a retiree who lives under the flight path of the Avon Park bombing range.

"If they make a mistake and blow up my house, oh well," Hopp said. "This is for our country. It's a small sacrifice. The more training they do here, the less blood will be shed over there."

Hopp was among a dozen or so residents to attend a Tuesday night meeting in Frostproof where the Navy unveiled its plans to use live ammunition on the range. The meeting, followed by one in Sebring on Wednesday and another Thursday in Avon Park, is required by federal environmental law.

The Navy wants to start dropping live ordinance about 30 times a year, starting in fall 2004.

Residents said they aren't particularly worried about errant bombs. What worries them is the racket. Already, the daily training of Air Force pilots can rattle windows and knock knickknacks off shelves.

Range in use since 1942

Since 1942, the Air Force has used the range for air-to-ground machine gunning and for dropping cement-packed dummy bombs. A year after opening, the military set up an imitation town with street lights to give its B-17 pilots the experience of a night raid.

The pilots, though, became confused and dropped a bomb on neatly lit Frostproof. Top brass from MacDill Air Force Base came out to apologize. But later that month, it happened again.

Depending on who's telling the story, the unintentional targets were the mayor's garage or a department store. Most agree that the second bomb crashed through the living room of cobbler and merchant Jake Bodow, knocking his wife out of bed. No one was seriously hurt.

Lifelong resident June Felt, now 77, said Frostproof embraces the errant bombing almost as much as its name - a marketing ploy designed to lure business in the late 1800s. Felt chronicled the town's history two years ago in a calendar that features a World War II B-25 bomber named "The Spirit of Frostproof, Florida." It honored the town's residents, who purchased nine times their quota of war bonds.

The widow of a career military man, Felt said she doesn't think history will repeat itself when the Navy starts dropping live bombs.

"I think they're a little more aware of the town. The targets and the weapons have changed," she said. "And so have our street lights."

Better bombs, equipment today

Navy Capt. Jim Scholl, with Atlantic Fleet Headquarters in Norfolk, Va., said today's weapons are guided to their targets with lasers and satellites. Communications are better, so pilots are better informed as to where they are.

"We just don't fly into an area and start dropping bombs blindly," Scholl said.

Scholl said Avon Park is an even better range than Vieques because it's larger and situated in the center of the state, making it accessible to battle groups floating in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Two active ranges, Pinecastle near Jacksonville and Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, aren't as accessible, he said.

Regardless of the base, Scholl said, the Navy needs to use live ammunition because "we fight like we train."

Scholl never even mentioned the word "Iraq" speaking to Frostproof residents Tuesday night. He didn't need to. He said the training proposed for Avon Park is for all conflicts, but noted that Gen. Tommy Franks - the commander of Persian Gulf forces - needs the best-trained pilots available.

In a typical training mission, Scholl said, planes will be launched from an aircraft carrier once a battle scenario is drawn up. Missiles and bombs from the ship's magazines will first be ordered up to the cramped flight deck. Crews will wire the bombs to make them live, assembling them on the spot with fins, boosters and nose pieces. The weapons will then be attached to the planes for takeoff.

If the weapons aren't properly rigged, they could easily fail to explode or miss their target. In that case, the bombs can actually skip for up to two miles on the ground - tearing up anything in their path.

They can be far more dangerous to base personnel than exploded weapons, said Ken Beers, operations manager for Avon Park.

"If you get a 2,000-pound piece of cement tumbling around, nothing can stop it," Beers said.

During Beers' 21 years on the base, no one's been seriously injured. The same can't be said for the cows.

Cattle, campers share land

The Air Force leases out about 151 square miles of the range for cattle farming, and a wandering bovine is no match for an aircraft machine gun firing 4,000 rounds a minute. Beers said the farmers have to bury the animals quickly to keep vultures away - a potential hazard for the fighter planes.

In addition to the cattle land, 78 percent of the range is available for public hunting, fishing and camping. In fact, the military has done such a good job managing the property that even environmentalists find it difficult to find fault.

At Tuesday's meeting, Ken Morrison of Audubon of Florida worried aloud about the bomb blasts' effects on the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, the grasshopper sparrow and the Florida scrub jay, a "fascinating bird" which has lost 90 percent of its Florida habitat.

But, he said, the safety of troops overseas trumps the birds.

"It has to be done somewhere, I guess. I just regret it has to be done here," he said. "But I can understand the Navy has a need for it, I guess."

That's about as close to criticism as people around the range get. Those who aren't sure of the Navy's plans prefer silence.

Few openly critical of plans

"I just don't know enough about it," said Don Gunter, owner of Don's Hot Pig barbecue stand. "I don't want to estrange anyone by saying what I might think."

Gunter steers talk of the bombing range back to pork and beans, and how his old business in Kentucky got a plug in the film Coal Miner's Daughter.

Indeed, support-our-troops patriotism has always been the norm here. So there's little to distract people from business. The Cargill Juice pasteurizing plant continues belching sickly sweet smoke downtown. Residents hauling farm equipment still fill up their pickups at the Townstar corner store, which sells $4 T-shirts emblazoned with a rebel flag that says: "It's not a redneck thing: Dixie Heritage."

Down at the range's lakeside entrance near the town of Avon Park, John Thompson welds a fence with a partner under the shade of oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. While taking a break, he said he hears all the firing, and it doesn't bother him. Thompson said the government took much of his grandfather's land to make the range.

But he's not bitter.

"Whatever they need, this community will give," he said. "Hell, you can't fight the government anyway."

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