Careful if you go camping in Florida's Ocala National Forest. One minute it's birds chirping in a serene forest and another it might be the scream of a fighter jet followed by the boom of an explosion. Because oddly enough, in the middle of this forest is the Pinecastle Impact Range, the US Navy's only live bomb target practice site on the entire east coast of the USA.
How did a bombing range get created in the middle of a national forest? In short: World War II. In the run up to the war, the US War Department negotiated a temporary use permit for over 40,000 acres of land from the USDA, which administers our national forests. In the middle of the 430,000-acre forest, far away from people, an entire bombing and gunnery range took shape. A fake Japanese city and factory were even built as target practice.
After the war, the US military relinquished most of that land back to the USDA, but not all of it. If you look at Ocala National Forest from above, you can still see a crop circle-like scar in the forest. This is the Pinecastle Impact Range, and it sits on the 5,000 acres or so of the national forest that are still used by the US Navy.
A-10 Warthogs at the Pinecastle bombing range doing strafe run and dropping MK82 AIR bombs. LiveLeak
The pilots that train here now are practising for targets in the Middle East. Cargo containers simulate the residential targets that they might have to bomb. "F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters and other aircraft take off from Naval Air Station Jacksonville or from aircraft carriers off the Florida coast, fly low over the forest, and drop their bombs in the middle 450 acres of the range," according to an announcement in the Ocala Post. Collectively, they drop 20,000 bombs on this range every year—most of them filled with clay, concrete, or iron, but several hundred of them still live. Pilots are scored on how well they hit their targets.
A close-up of some of the targets at Pinecastle
The shapes—bull's eyes, stars, a hexagon— that you see cleared out in the forest correspond to targets in the Pinecastle complex. Here's how Military Bases describe a few of the most distinctive targets:
Live Ordnance Impact Area: Targets in impact area consist of vehicle hulks arranged to for a "T" and scored by WISS. Maximum 500 pound general purpose or explosive equivalent, ball ammo up to 30mm, rockets up to five inch, and practice bombs are authorised.
Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) Site Target: This target resembles a hexagram with a circular service road encompassing the radar and surrounding missile launcher pads. This target is not scored. Practice bombs, inert MK 80 series bombs, and inert rockets up to five-inch are authorised.
Day/Night Conventional Dive Bomb/Rocket Target: The target consists of a surplus military vehicle bull's-eye and four concentric tire rings of 50, 100, 200, and 300-feet radii. This target is equipped with an integral lighting system for night bombing exercises. Twelve radar reflectors are placed in clock positions at 400-feet. Only practice bombs are authorised on this target.
Inert Ordnance Runway: This target consists of a mock runway. Practice bombs, inert MK 80 series bombs, and inert rockets up to five-inch are authorised.
All this bombing has, of course, predictably raised some eyebrows. Even from the middle of the forest, the force of the blasts can reach the homes of residents miles away: windows rattle, the ground shakes. Not to mention, it's extremely loud. Old munitions from the World War II days also linger in the area as a potential hazard. Even in what should be the idyllic nature of a national forest, we're reminded of the price of war. [ h/t Daily Overview]