‘The new normal’: Emails show back-and-forth area leaders had over uptick in military jet activity at ILM

Wilmington International Airport addressed the concerns of residents about military airplane noise twice in the past year
Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 4:18 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Over the past year, you have probably noticed an increase in military jets flying around the Wilmington area and using the runways at ILM. The presence of the aircraft has divided the community; while some people say they enjoy the ‘sound of freedom,’ others are bothered by the seemingly increasing interruptions of their days due to the noise and vibrations caused by the planes.

Wilmington International Airport has addressed the concerns of residents twice in the past year through press releases, but emails obtained by WECT show there have been ongoing discussions about the military use by airport officials.

Even local officials and state lawmakers have reached out to voice their concerns about the use of the runways and ensuing disruptions the jets have caused for some people and businesses in the Port City — including the film industry.

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the airline industry, like so many other businesses, was impacted. The effects on airports and airlines across the country was significant.

“As an example, ILM’s passenger loads dropped by 61.3% in the month of July and our biggest revenue source, parking revenue, decreased by 79.1% compared to July 2019,” Chair of the New Hanover County Airport Donna Girardot wrote in an email to State Representative Deb Butler.

It wasn’t just airlines and airports suffering, companies that operate services at airports known as fixed base operators (FBO) also faced setbacks.

“ILM was not alone in the struggle during the pandemic. Our FBO, Modern Aviation, saw its fuel services to the airlines dwindle to 51% and their gross revenue dropped 80% compared to July 2019. Like many small companies in the area, they examined their business model for opportunities to earn new revenue to fill the gap. ILM commends them for becoming certified to conduct hot refueling of military aircraft,” according to Girardot’s letter.

“It is a highly sought after designation, requiring special equipment and training. While airline fueling services were low, the military contract and hot refueling services helped our tenant maintain employees and revenue,” she said.

Hot refueling is a type of refueling where engines remain on while refueling. This allows pilots conducting training to stay in the air longer, and spend less time on the tarmac, but it does come with some concerns. Previous Airport Director Julie Wilsey acknowledged these complaints are valid and said there has been an increase in military usage of the airport but agrees it is a complicated situation.

“Hot refueling at ILM is more appealing to the units than standard refueling. They have more time in the air and spend less travel time back to their base. Also the weekend refueling is less expensive at ILM than on their home bases. The military jets also use the approach to ILM as training for approaching civilian fields as they would in forward deployed areas,” she said.

“Being able to get in, refuel, and get back out again is really beneficial and that is why I think we’ve seen an increase,” Commissioner Rob Zapple said.

Many people have asked how often these jets are going to be using the airport and whether or not the noise will ever lessen. While Zapple said he has not seen quite as many noise complaints, back in March, Wilsey alluded to the number of aircraft using ILM

“As to frequency, this could become the new normal (until the Military runs out of their annual training budget),” she wrote.

Keeping business alive

Richard Formo is the General Manager of Modern Aviation, he says the military using the airport for refuelings helped when COVID-19 hit.

“It helped us stay afloat --- definitely. We were able to keep on our full staff of employees, we didn’t lay anyone off, we didn’t reduce staff at that point ... The military had a lot to do with that they were the largest customer coming in during 2020 and they really helped us to keep afloat and to maintain our people,” he said.

The economic driver that the military provides is important and Zapple says he thinks a balance needs to be met in order to ensure the military continue their training, and residents can enjoy their homes without excess noise.

Though the noise from the jets does get loud, there are people who support the use of ILM and enjoy seeing the military aircraft, often referring to the noise as ‘the sound of freedom.’ This line of thinking is often used to put people into two camps: those who support the military versus those who don’t, but Zapple said that isn’t often the case.

“The vast majority of the people I hear from are very supportive of our military and they certainly understand the need for a strong military presence, etcetera. Where it sort of crosses the line is on a Saturday or Sunday — you’re sitting out on your back deck and you are enjoying some company with friends, and all of a sudden these jets come in very low and very hot, as they say, and you have to stop conversation,” Zapple said.

As it turns out, it’s not that people are simply more aware of the planes on weekends and after hours, they are using the airport more frequently at these times.

“ILM staff is researching the status of training through Modern Aviation. They have the military refueling contract and it is normally done after hours and on weekends when the units are training offshore. We have seen an increase in activity (and fuel revenue at the FBO). We are not arguing with the activity. There are military noise complaint phone numbers we can give out,” Wilsey wrote.

As far as frequency goes, it’s still not clear how many military aircraft use the runways. WECT has an outstanding FOIA request with the FAA asking for the number of approaches by military planes over the past year, but at this time it has not been answered.

One email from April shows a breakdown over a three-day period from April 9 to April 11 where 63 military fuelings took place at ILM. On Sunday, April 11, 22 F-18 jets and two Harriers used the airport — that’s 26 fuelings just on Sunday (the number of fuelings is not the same as the number of aircraft since the same planes could be refueled multiple times).

Apart from keeping the FBO operational, Wilsey also explained how the increased use of the airport is good for the community as a whole.

“This activity is good for the community…. The 6 C-130s training at ILM this week resulted in 72 rooms at the Hilton for 6 nights, meals/entertainment spending downtown and 16 rental cars. Modern brought this business to Wilmington,” she said.

For Formo, it’s a balancing act between running a business, and being stewards in the community.

“We have a job to do, the military has a job to do, but as you stated, we need to be good neighbors and we have definitely kept that in mind,” he said.

Aware of concerns but hands are tied

While ILM is aware of the concerns of the community, Giradot made it clear to Butler that the airport would not be taking any action to restrict the jets, instead, choosing to focus on the business park and other needs at ILM.

“We have done our due diligence regarding the recent noise complaints about Military aircraft. ILM does not have the ability to restrict or prohibit aircraft operations based on noise, particularly military or government aircraft, and we cannot restrict the business at the FBO. There are many other challenges related to COVID-19, Air Service, and the ILM Business Park Development that requires the full attention of our staff. The airport will not take any further action on the topic of Military training and noise,” Giradot wrote.

While their messaging has been for people to reach out to military bases to voice their concerns with noise, it is clear that ILM does worry about the number of complaints and impacts on the community.

“Another noise complaint. It must have been a noise weekend. ILM staff will talk about it this week to see if the frequency is increasing or how long this training rotation will last. Three complaints in a week is certainly potential controversy,” Wilsey wrote in an email to Girardot.

Another concern the airport had followed a response to a Twitter post asking people if they had concerns or questions about the noise. When someone who works in the film industry in Wilmington responded saying there were concerns that the noise could affect the film industry, the airport’s response encouraged that individual to let the military know; but internally, it’s clear the airport was concerned with the complaint.

“Oh no….. this could be bad if ILM gets blamed for ruining business. I’ll get my team to think on this until next week. In the past, they had an air to ground radio on the stage and could listen for the aircraft talking to ATC. That system allowed them to start and stop filming when planes are inbound,” Wilsey wrote.

ILM recommends the public reach out to them at 910-341-4336 to confirm which military base is using the airport on any given day. Airport officials also provided the following contact information for the noise abatement offices at those bases:

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