ABERDEEN -- Peeling his orange flight suit down to his waist in the 90-degree heat, pilot Don Shearer stands by his helicopter and tries to describe what it's like to fly three feet above an abandoned bombing range in search of unexploded ordnance.
"This is probably one of the most intense things I've ever done," he says.
It's not the danger from the bombs. They're buried in the ground -- duds that failed to explode or castoffs, dumped decades ago on military property and forgotten.
It's the precision flying, said Shearer, 46. A partner in Sky Research Inc. of Ashland, Ore., the veteran pilot flies choppers laden with magnetic sensors that help the U.S. military locate buried, unexploded ordnance on bases around the country.
He spoke recently at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County at a workshop designed to acquaint government officials with the latest technologies for locating and identifying buried munitions.
It's not an idle concern. Less than two weeks before the workshop began, a beachgoer in Rehoboth, Del. picked up two rusted artillery shells, carried them to a lifeguard stand and asked if he could keep them.
Explosives experts with the Delaware State Police determined the shells were more than 80 years old, but most definitely still dangerous. A 600-foot section of beach was closed.
Earlier this year, an Elkton farmer who had plowed up metal fragments for 30 years, found 50 acres of his 400-acre farm roped off by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Defense Department discovered that a World War II-era munitions factory had used the wheat field as a dump. Now it's an EPA Superfund site.
15 million acres in U.S.
The Defense Department estimates that there are 15 million acres of former military bases and closed bombing ranges in the U.S. where unexploded ordnance is a problem.
"It's a big business in the context of the problems that lie in front of us," said Ben Redmond, president of NAOC (National Association of Ordnance and Explosive Waste Contractors), which represents 53 ordnance disposal contractors.
"In many cases, it's impeded the reuse and redevelopment of those bases," he said. And that hurts the economy in the surrounding communities.
The Bush administration has requested more than $200 million for cleanup work. But at that rate, Redmond said, it would take 15 years to clean up the 700 most contaminated sites in the U.S. "It's less than half of what is needed to have a real program," he insisted.
It's expensive work. It can cost $200 to dig a single hole. And most times -- 49 times out of 50, by one estimate -- those holes will lead only to harmless shell fragments, sewer pipes or hubcaps.
That's where Shearer's helicopter and other new and developing technologies on display at Aberdeen come in.
Developed in cooperation with the Naval Research Laboratory and other government agencies, they're beginning to reduce the number of holes being dug, by first isolating problem areas, and then discriminating more accurately between the dangerous and the harmless.
Shearer's Bell helicopter is fitted with magnetic field detectors, arrayed on booms that extend in front of, and 15 feet from each side of the aircraft.
Zipping over a closed bombing range, the gear can record and map disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field caused by the iron in buried weapons.
Surveying up to 400 acres per day, it can vastly reduce the known "footprint" of buried ordnance in areas such as the World War II bombing range at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, closed since 1994.
While it can't tell the difference between 85 millimeter and 105 mm shells, said Jack Foley, vice president for technology at Sky Research, it can distinguish "very small, medium and large" projectiles. But the flying isn't easy, said Shearer, who has logged 20,000 hours flying helicopters for film crews, fire fighting, search and rescue and crop dusting.
First, he said, 300 pounds of extra gear that extends awkwardly from the aircraft causes the chopper to pitch oddly at some speeds.
During an ordnance survey, the pilot has to fly at 40 mph, holding the craft three feet above the ground. And, while he's watching to be sure a sloping landscape or a puff of wind doesn't catch the end of the port or starboard boom, he has to steer in lockstep with a search pattern plotted by Global Positioning System electronics on a cockpit computer screen.
"The biggest thing is to stay on track," he said. "The system tells you if you're 3 1/2 inches to the left or right or your course. It tells you right away if you're screwing up."
After flying 52 hours over eight days to survey 3,500 acres at Lowry, Shearer confessed, "I was pretty much wiped out." The company has since limited a single crew's flying to 36 hours in six days.
Less grueling and more precise ordnance detection is possible with equipment on the ground. Towed or carried by vehicles or humans and guided by satellites or laser beams, they use magnetism or electrical current -- or both -- to find buried munitions.
Testing the technology
Just how well such equipment performs is a critical question for the civilian and military cleanup planners who will buy and use them. So the army has built two testing centers, one on a 15-acre site at Aberdeen and the other at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
At Aberdeen, the Army has buried a variety of inert bombs and other weaponry, from 20 mm anti-aircraft shells to 155 mm artillery projectiles. There's even a 500-pound bomb and mines, according to George Robitaille, manager of the UXO (unexploded ordnance) technology program at Aberdeen's U.S. Army Environmental Center.
Some are buried at various depths in a mapped "calibration site," so developers can test their detection equipment and identify the signatures of known munitions.
There are also "blind" courses, where only the Army knows what's below the dirt, so it can evaluate equipment that vendors want to sell.
"It gives us all a common test site where different technologies can all be tested," said John Allan, president of NAEVA Geophysics Inc., a subsurface detection firm in Charlottesville, Va. "We're able to evaluate one technology against another."
Ultimately, the goal is to develop more efficient ways to find and remove unexploded ordnance before they're picked up by an Elkton farmer or Rehoboth beachcomber.
While only 15 to 20 U.S. civilians have been killed by unexploded ordnance since 1950, Redmond said, unlike almost any other form of industrial contamination, a misstep with this sort is "catastrophic."