by Mike Vogel
Updated 8 months ago
A 106,034-acre site in rural central Florida is routinely bombed, blasted and shot to pieces. Naturally resplendent, it’s a unique asset for both the military and environmentalists.
On a silent central Florida airfield miles from the nearest town, a black U.S. Special Operations Chinook helicopter fires up its engines for an undisclosed training mission. Across the airstrip, on separate business, U.S. Air Force combat search and rescue Black Hawk helicopters from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia gear up for a short hop to a nearby area where door gunners will pummel ground targets with .50-caliber machine guns.
Meanwhile, as the first clouds begin to build toward a June afternoon thunderstorm, a group of men who could pass for engineering grad students position themselves down the 8,000-foot concrete runway. They follow with tracking gear as one releases a drone. It shoots up vertically a hundred feet, rotates and scurries off across the sky on a project related to Special Operations Command.
It’s another day at the Avon Park Air Force Range, at 106,034 acres the largest bomb and gunnery range east of the Mississippi.
Beyond the concrete runway lie mock villages, a mock airfield, laser-guided weapons practice fields, helicopter landing zones and airborne drop zones. The range averages a visiting unit training about every third day. Depending on the day, you might find local law enforcement practicing emergency driving skills on the runway or helicopters training to shoot a moving target riding along a rail. Airborne troops might float down by parachute and call in an airstrike, or Army choppers may be firing Hellfire missiles. Air Reserve fighters from Homestead might be practicing taking out enemy armor, or the Florida National Guard may conduct target practice with their 105mm Howitzers.
Avon Park has no unit of its own, but all the services, including Special Forces, the FBI and British, Canadian and Australian forces, have used the range.
“If you have a need to shoot something or blow something up, you bring it here,” says operations director and former range commander Charles “Buck” MacLaughlin, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
The area’s role in military history dates to the Seminole War. The sites of Fort Arbuckle and Fort Kissimmee, all but invisible now beneath the scrub, lie within the range’s bounds. The site’s modern use dates to the World War II military building boom in Florida, when the government created, reactivated or enlarged more than 172 military installations across the state. The influx of service people, who later returned as veterans, has been one of the major factors in Florida’s postwar growth.
As part of the boom, the government after Pearl Harbor purchased the 106,000 acres in Highlands and Polk counties east of Avon Park and leased another 111,165 across the Kissimmee River. The Army Air Corps moved up to 10,000 servicemen, not including civilian employees, B-26 Marauders and later B-17 Flying Fortresses to what was called the largest bombing range in the world.
The base newspaper tallied 204,565 practice “dummy” bombs dropped there during the war plus an untallied number of live ordnance. (Occasionally, unexploded bombs that disappeared into the sandy soil make their way to the surface. Explosive removal experts attach C-4 to them and detonate them in place, rather than risk disarming a 70-year-old bomb.)
Workers also built a mock-up submarine on a lake for target practice; a railroad for moving-target practice; and a fake waterfront town with piers and boats on Lake Arbuckle. On two nights in 1944, bombers from MacDill AFB in Tampa mistook nearby Frostproof for the range and dropped loads of 100-pound “dummy” bombs on the town. The mayor, whose yard was hit, called the base to surrender.
As farcical as that episode sounds, training has had a human cost: Approximately 100 people have died in major crashes either at Avon Park or to and from it over the decades.
After the war, the range transitioned to the U.S. Air Force. Land east of the Kissimmee River went into the 54,000- acre Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. A state prison opened on part of the range in 1951 and later a juvenile corrections facility. The government reportedly monitored the spread of mosquitos released at the range to test their use in a biological weapons attack and also unleashed a wheat fungus for research on attacking the Soviet Union’s food supply.
The Vietnam War led to Avon Park developing a specialty in close-air support training — the integration of tactical air power and ground troops. But when Mac- Dill and Homestead lost active duty combat aircraft in the 1990s, Avon Park saw a drastic drop in use. MacLaughlin, when he took command in 2008, was the only active duty person.
Avon Park is now up to four active duty personnel, including range commander Lt. Col. Paul Neidhardt. The range has 100 civilian and contractor employees who handle everything from janitorial work to coordinating air strikes for units training. A number of them work at its airfield fire department, which is staffed 24/7.
Collectively, they made possible 137 training events in a recent year, events as small as squad-level infantry exercises and as large as “Jaded Thunder” with 400 troops and 25 aircraft, an exercise so encompassing in 2011 that Hillsborough County residents called Tampa news media to report low-flying aircraft and loud noises.
The bombing range has been a boon to the environment. Only a fraction of the range comprises “impact areas” — the rest is buffer — and 95% of what’s dropped Are inert, unarmed bombs, whether 2,000-pound concrete bombs or the far more numerous 25-pound BDU-33. “A lot of people think if you work at a bombing range, No. 1, you’re hearing-impaired and, No. 2, it’s going to look like a war zone, craters everywhere,” MacLaughlin says. “It’s not the surface of the moon. I think this is a real neat and real beautiful piece of property.”
As MacLaughlin cruises in a fourwheel- drive vehicle on an unpaved range road in June, a turkey hen and her poults emerge from the scrub. It reminds him of the time as commander when he found himself idling along a range road behind a flock of 30 turkeys. After 21 years in the military, most of it flying A10 Warthog jets and F-117 stealth fighters, he thought to himself, “Here’s the culmination of my Air Force career. Now I’m a turkey herder. I was laughing my rear end off.”
The range’s acreage is composed mostly of Florida ridge and scrub habitat and Florida flatlands and prairie. It’s home to endemic Florida plants and animals, including deer, snakes, gopher tortoises and 14 threatened and endangered species, including Florida scrub jays, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the allbut- extinct Florida grasshopper sparrow. It’s tough, hot country for infantry to train in, but to environmentalists, it’s a treasure. “Most of it is still native cover. We just don’t have much native cover left in the state,” says Paul Gray, Audubon Florida science coordinator.
The Air Force burns a third of the range annually, replicating the natural lightning- driven cycle so important to the flora and fauna. The range is so unspoiled that Reed Bowman, a research biologist at the non-profit Archbold Biological Station, says it’s what he would show people to illustrate what Florida’s habitat would be like without people. “A spectacular place,” Bowman says.
Sites of human habitation at the range date to when humans and mammoths co-existed. Another site shows evidence of continual human habitation for 7,000 years, a world-class site, says archaeologist Kathy Couturier, the range’s cultural resources manager.
Some 80% of Avon Park is open to hunters, birders, timber harvesters and ranchers. You’re as likely to see cattle grazing as a bombing run. About 1,000 people buy annual permits to hunt turkey, deer, feral hogs and other game.
Like other military installations, the range’s future faces a threat from spending cuts. With an annual budget of $6 million to $7 million, plus another $2.5 million for environmental work, Avon Park is a speck in the Defense Department’s appropriation. But some budget intricacies work against it: While many military branches train there, the active Air Force bears the budget burden, and Avon Park has no permanent unit, such as a fighter wing, to aid its claim on the Air Force’s combat budget.
The range’s parent, Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, is too far away for Moody A10s to fly down and put in much time over targets before running short on fuel. A succession of recent Avon commanders at the behest of Moody superiors has invested in improvements needed to reopen the runway, closed to jets since 2007. That would allow planes to land at the range to refuel and increase their time training. In a mid- June test of the facilities, eight A10s from parent Moody flew down to do just that.
The other threat to Avon Park is shared by bases around the country: The encroachment of civilian development and complaints about noise and military activity. Even something as small as more streetlights nearby could interfere with a range specialty of providing night vision goggle training and laser training for the military. Developers of Destiny, a massive real estate project to the east near Yeehaw Junction, wanted the FAA to strip The range of a third of the low-level flight space east of the range. The FAA refused. The recession put Destiny in limbo, but it still worries range officials.
Overall, local governments restrict types of development near the range. Federal and state money in recent years bought 1,400 acres in conservation easements from neighboring ranches to keep development away.
The range enjoys the support of area residents. “A lot of the locals have grown up with it,” says Highlands County Commissioner Jim Brooks, whose mother worked on the range during World War II and who hunted on it in the 1960s and 1970s. It helps the economy and, as someone who used to live just a few miles away, Brooks says it’s unobtrusive. “I think most everybody is glad it’s there.”
Avon Park’s uniqueness may be its best hope for continuing. “There’s no room in the United States to create another installation like this in my opinion,” MacLaughlin says. “This is a national asset. If this range goes away, it doesn’t get built somewhere else.”
» For a photo gallery, go to FloridaTrend.com/AvonPark
A slideshow of the Avon Park Air Force Range
Old shipping containers are used to form the buildings in a dummy village, airfeld control towers and a store. Units train to avoid hitting culturally significant structures, like a mosque, or friendly forces and innocents.
Worn-out jets and retired M113 armored personnel carriers are stripped of glass and fuids. To mimic an armored rocket launcher, a crate that held missiles is put on top of a personnel carrier, its fake missile tubes pointing skyward.
The props and vehicles take a beating. Concrete is pockmarked from small-arms fire and blast effects, as are containers and vehicles.
The range also has “conventional” target areas where aircraft, working without ground troops, conduct target practice. Cameras on observation towers provide feedback on accuracy. An acoustic-sensor area can count gunnery accuracy.
Other places where bombs are dropped in Florida:
Eglin Air Force Base: Eglin’s primary mission for years has been to research, develop, test and evaluate new weapons and munitions on its 464,000 acres in the Panhandle, but in recent years with the addition of other missions and units — the 7th Special Forces Group, for instance — it also has come to offer training with established munitions. Of its total land acreage, 36,514 are designated “impact areas” for live and inert munitions, gunnery, high explosives and so on. It operates every day with users as diverse as the Alabama National Guard and U.S. Special Forces. Even with 724 square miles, Eglin’s pinched for space. With so many units and so much testing and with the advent of long-range, standoff weapons, which require a bigger buffer in case something goes amiss, it’s a challenge for the Air Force to schedule everything.
Eglin Gulf Test and Training Complex: Eglin also oversees 116,449 square nautical miles of controlled air space over the Gulf — roughly from the Panhandle south to Key West and west to the Alabama-Mississippi state line designated as the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Complex. It’s used for the same manner of training as the Eglin land area and includes designated live fire areas where a barge, for example, might be used for target practice.
Pinecastle Bombing Range: A 5,698-acre area within the Ocala National Forest, it’s the Navy’s only live-impact site on the U.S. East Coast. Its primary user is the Navy, but Pinecastle also sees Marine, Army and Air Force units. Annual totals have less than 1,300 bombs, about half of which are live explosives. The Defense Department has used the site since 1941, and the Navy’s used it since 1951. Most of the range is a buffer zone for a small area where planes target bombs, missiles and gunnery on vehicle hulks, concentric circles, simulated convoys and other targets.
Jacksonville Range Complex: Some 150,000 square miles of surface and subsurface sea space and special use airspace that runs from Port Canaveral to just north of Wilmington, N.C., and 250 nautical miles out to sea. It sees limited bombing use — about 75 to 100 bombs per year. The whole thing is controlled by the Navy’s Jacksonville-based Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility.
Most of the range’s acreage is buffer land, home to unspoiled scrub and prairie habitat and 14 endangered or threatened species. The Air Force has funded 20 years of ecological research by Archbold Biological Station and employs four environmental researchers. The Air Force also helped organize the only conference devoted to Florida’s dry prairie ecosystem. There are cultural and historical resources too, protected and researched with Air Force money.