Pilot training creates buzz in Triad

Every week or two people in Greensboro can get a glimpse of a massive gray plane flying slow and low near PTI airport. For those who live near the airport, the plane might even shake the whole house with a dense roar as it passes so close overhead that someone with sharp eyesight could see the writing and military symbols on the body. A few minutes later the plane returns before circling back again and again.

The sight has left people in Greensboro wondering where the planes are coming from, and why they seem circle over the city like giant buzzards.

Military planes flying in such a pattern are executing what is known as a touchand-go landing. During a touch-and-go maneuver, a pilot just barely touches down on a runway before taking off again without bringing the plane to a complete stop. The pilot will then circle the airport in a pattern called a circuit in order to repeat the exercise. Touch-and-go landings allows pilots to practice landing and taking off multiple times within a short period.

Planes practicing touch-and-go maneuvers at PTI fly in circuits over the Guilford College, Starmount and Cardinal areas. The touch-and-go circuits often fly directly over the Cardinal neighborhood off of Bryan Blvd.

Bob Shope is president of the Cardinal Homeowner’s Association and has been outspoken about the disturbance caused by the proximity of the planes. Shope said, “It’s ominous. It looks like you could almost reach out and touch these things.”

The loud engines sometimes lead people to call the complaint hotline at PTI airport. “In most cases you just get a voicemail and register your complaint,” said Shope. “We’d just like it kept to a minimum.”

While residents near the airport might like to see PTI do something about the noise, the airport actually has very little authority over who uses the runway.

“We don’t have any agreements with military bases,” said Executive Director of PTI, Kevin Baker. The runway at PTI is similar to a public interstate: anyone can use it. Pilots simply contact the tower upon arrival to ask for permission to either land, or perform a touch-and-go.

According to Baker the military planes come from bases all over the country. PTI has made an effort to make an announcement on its Facebook page whenever it appears that an incoming series of touch-and-go landings might disrupt noise patterns. “We notify the public as soon as we know it’s coming,” said Baker.

After a new 9,000 foot runway was completed in 2010, the old runway has become a popular destination for military planes practicing touch-an-go landings. The old runway is 10,000 feet and receives minimal traffic.

Sometimes rubber builds up on the older runway, and military planes are rerouted to the new runway. When this happens Baker often notices an increase in traffic to the complaint hotline.

The planes can be an alarming sight to someone unfamiliar with touchand-go landings as they are clearly different from the commercial planes typically taking off and landing at PTI. “You’d see the gray ghost circling around,” said Shope Commonly sighted military planes for touch-and-go landings include the C-130 Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster.

The C-130 Hercules is a large gray plane with a length of 97 feet and a 132-foot wingspan. The C-17 is similar in color and body but even larger than the C-130 with a length of 174 feet and a wingspan of 169. The C-130 can be identified by its propellers, while the larger C-17 uses jet engines.

The C-130 is often used for search and rescue missions. According to the US Air Force, “The C-130 Hercules primarily performs the tactical portion of the airlift mission. The aircraft is capable of operating from rough, dirt strips and is the prime transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.” The C-130 Hercules can airdrop up to 42,000 pounds of cargo and reach speeds of 366 mph.

The larger C-17 is an even more flexible cargo aircraft that can deliver cargo and troops more rapidly. The C-17 is able to carry up to 102 paratroops and 170,900 pounds of cargo. There are currently 187 active duty C-17 planes.

Nearby active duty bases for the C-130 Hercules include Pope Field in Fayetteville and Little Rock Air Force Base. C-17 planes are active at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina.

PTI doesn’t keep a comprehensive database that tracks the type of military planes that come in and where they come from. Air Force bases don’t keep those records in a central location either.

A Public Affairs Officer from the 437 th Airlift Wing at the Charleston Air Force Base confirmed that the base does use PTI for touch-and-go trainings with the C-17 on rare occasions. “With so many pilots completing training exercises everywhere, that’s just not something we can keep track of.”

There is one plane that really turns heads when visiting PTI, and there is no mystery regarding where is comes from. “Air Force One is here all the time,” said Baker. The blue and white Boeing 747 flies down from DC three or four times a year for touch-and-go landings at PTI.

Baker said that Air Force One usually uses the older runway, but that an issue with an inbound Delta commercial liner once forced Air Force One to go on the new runway. The sight elicited a lot of excitement and speculation.

While the Boeing 747 is only officially called Air Force One when the sitting president is aboard the plane, just the sight of such an iconic symbol of the presidency is cause for anyone within viewing distance to stop and look up. People driving on Market and Friendly have been known to pull over to snap a photo of the presidential plane during its visits.

The plane sightings have become a sort of sport for some in Greensboro, similar to bird watching. After a military plane makes its first pass at the airport, some residents near the airport go outside to wait with their cameras to try and snap a photo.

Stephanie Freeman is the Marketing and Customer Relations Manager at the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority and manages the airports Facebook page. “People will tag us in pictures they take of some of the military planes,” said Freeman. “I’ve liked a lot of them on Facebook.” !