June 26 2020
Rick Steelhammer |WV Gazette
Less than two years ago, military use of Charleston’s Yeager Airport was generally limited to C-130 flights operated by the home-based 130th Airlift Wing and sporadic refueling stops by military aircraft passing through the area.
“Back then, we’d get maybe two or three transient military aircraft a week stopping in to refuel,” said Nick Keller, Yeager’s director. “So far this month, we’ve handled more than 100.”
In the past 20 months, aircraft from at least 126 military aviation units and thousands of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard aircrew members, support teams and trainees have spent time at Yeager Airport.
The increased military presence at the Charleston airport is no lucky accident.
In his prior role as the airport’s assistant director, Keller and current Assistant Director James “Buzz” Mason, a former Navy helicopter pilot, spearheaded a marketing effort to bring in more military traffic. But before pitching the airport as a training base, they needed to develop some unique selling points and hone some existing ones, which they accomplished with help from Yeager’s governing board, National Guard officials and area coal companies.
In February, 2019, the airport signed lease agreements for five inactive surface mines in Boone and Logan counties identified as being suitable to serve as remote military training sites.
Since then, leases for additional strip mine sites in at least four other counties, including Kanawha, have been added, giving training exercise planners 60,000 acres of terrain to choose from, in parcels of up to 25,000 acres.
All of the sites are located within about 30 minutes flying time from Yeager, which in turn is located about 3 miles from the center of the state’s largest city.
After Yeager-owned Capital Jet Service assumed management of the general aviation complex formerly operated by Executive Air in late 2018, flight line crews were trained and certified to provide “hot refueling” service for a variety of military aircraft. The service involves topping off an aircraft’s fuel tanks while its engines are operating, saving aircrews a substantial amount of time.
Last year, Yeager Airport refurbished an unused 2,000-square-foot office building in the general aviation complex and equipped it with a flight planning room, conference room, lounge and kitchen.
In July, it was dedicated as the Woody Williams Military Flight Operations Center, named in honor of West Virginia World War II Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams, and serves as a headquarters for military units staging training exercises from Yeager.
Some selling points for Yeager’s role as a training base were already in place. Both Yeager’s Air Traffic Control Tower and Capital Jet Service are open on a 24/7 basis, with on-site fire protection provided by a squad attached to the 130th Airlift Wing.
“You won’t find a lack of airspace congestion and an abundance of remote training sites that we have here anywhere else east of the Mississippi,” Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer said at Yeager on Thursday, during a presentation on the airport’s growth as a military aviation training base. “People can train here in a safe, secure environment.”
Visiting military aviators so far this month have bought 50,000 gallons of fuel from Capital Jet Services. “Last weekend alone, they booked 110 room nights in Charleston hotels and dined in Charleston restaurants,” Keller said.
Those taking part in multi-day training operations are entitled to $107 per day to cover lodging expenses and $56 per day for food, typically spent in Charleston area hotels and restaurants.
Training activities at the mine sites include takeoffs and landings from dirt airstrips, confined area landings, helicopter sling-loading and transport, instrument approach training, simulated shipboard landings and carrier break formations.
“They can also practice troop insertions with multiple aircraft and conduct simulated raids of a facility,” said Keller. “The airport has worked with the West Virginia National Guard to place an aircraft fuselage on the Guard’s Hobet site for pilot rescue training. Eventually, we hope to allow aerial gunnery from helicopters.”
The spike in military traffic at Yeager doesn’t make up for the loss in commercial traffic due to COVID-19, but it helps.
“It provides a way to bring in different sources of revenue and ensure we maintain jobs at the airport,” Keller said.
Aircraft involved in Yeager-based training include Marine AV-8B Harrier jump jets and MV-22 Ospreys, Navy MH-60s Nighthawk and CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, Air Force A-10 Warthogs and F-18 Hornets, and Ospreys from the Japan Self Defense Force, flown by pilots training with a Marine Osprey unit.
Next week, A-10s from the Maryland Air National Guard will be practicing close air support tactics, making rapid descents from about 10,000 feet to about 5,000 feet over Charleston.
“We plan to continue to leverage our property, space and people throughout the state to make more training opportunities available in coming years,” Hoyer said.