‘IT'S THE SOUND OF FREEDOM’: Here’s why military aircraft love Wilmington airspace

A U.S. Navy aircraft flies over Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington March 15. Armed with a Department of Defense contract, a private company based out of the Wilmington International Airport frequently services military aircraft. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — While the pandemic has led to a lull in air travel, including at the Wilmington International Airport (ILM), the U.S. Department of Defense remains a high-dollar benefactor of the local airport. 

Military aircraft have found a welcome home at ILM, where Modern Aviation, a “fixed-base operator” that works on airport property, holds a $4 million Department of Defense contract to refuel military aircraft in need of services in the Wilmington area. 

The company hosts aircraft from U.S. Marine Corps stations in Cherry Point and Beaufort, among other military locations.

While the arrangement has led to a profitable addition to services offered at ILM, military aircraft also make use of the airport for training exercises. 

“The military jets use the approach to ILM as training for approaching civilian fields as they would in forward deployed areas,” according to airport director Julie Wilsey.

ILM accepts grant money from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Wilsey added in an email. As a condition of those funds, the military is authorized to make use of its runways and taxiways. 

Residents have taken notice lately, calling the airport and county officials about the large volume of military air traffic. It prompted ILM to release a Facebook post last week, sharing contacts for the military’s noise abatement and community hotlines.

Responses were generally supportive of the military presence: “Think of it as an air show,” wrote one poster. “I love it when they fly over.”

Another wrote: “Don’t mind the noise but do not like my house shaking.”

Military pilots are exempt from FAA noise restrictions and the 1,000-foot height requirement, according to Wilsey. 

“PARDON OUR NOISE,” exclaims the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station New River website. “IT’S THE SOUND OF FREEDOM.”

Last July, Modern Aviation obtained a treasured amendment to its contract that allows it to refuel military planes while the engines still run. The new arrangement has likely led to more frequent military usage of ILM airfields, according to Bill Cherry, who founded Modern Aviation’s predecessor. 

The lobby and security area of Wilmington International Airport (ILM). (Port City Daily/ Hannah Leyva)

Cherry started Air Wilmington, Inc. in 1975. He said the company procured a Department of Defense contract in the late 1970s. In 1986, it bought out the assets of Aeronautics, Inc., a different company that previously had a Wilmington-area military fuel contract. 

Air Wilmington was a “fixed-base operator,” a type of entity licensed to operate on airport territory and perform services, like refueling and maintenance. 

With that contract in tow, Cherry said, military aircraft would arrive at ILM with their government credit card and receive fuel. Officials at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Cherry Point eventually turned exercises in Wilmington into weekend trips, he said, to maximize flight time before aircraft inspections were required. 

“Any of these airplanes — Coast Guard, Navy, Marines, Air Force — are using that card to pay for their fuel,” Cherry said. 

For years, Air Wilmington tried to obtain what’s called a “hot refueling” contract — where aircraft are refueled with the engines still running, and the process can take less than 15 minutes instead of two hours or longer — but was unsuccessful, Cherry said. 

“It’s a real political nightmare,” he said, because amending a Department of Defense contract to allow for hot refueling requires the consent of the participating military branches and numerous sub-entities within those branches. 

Air Wilmington inked a new deal with the Department of Defense that began August 1, 2017 and runs through the

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