Military Pilots Take Advantage of Empty U.S. Airspace

With commercial traffic slowed by pandemic, armed forces use airports to stay sharp

By Evan Dougherty

Published June 29, 2020

Read Time: 3 mins


On a clear, sunny day in late April, the skies above Pittsburgh International Airport were filled with the thunderous roar of two unique aircraft.

The huge jets, each with three engines and painted matte grey, followed each other, flying low in a pattern around the airport. They were KC-10 Extenders: the largest tanker in the U.S. Air Force and an unusual sight in the skies above PIT.

With commercial airline traffic at record-low levels due to the COVID-19 pandemic, military pilots are using the empty skies to bolster their training schedules.

The KC-10s took off from their home base at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, in New Jersey, to practice approaches at PIT. The aircraft did several touch-and-gos – landing very briefly before immediately taking off again – before flying back to their home base.

Why PIT?

With three long, parallel runways and one crosswind runway, Pittsburgh International can accommodate aircraft of any size. Three of PIT’s four runways are longer than 10,000 feet and at least 150 feet wide, allowing the airport to handle the largest airplanes, commercial and military, flying in the skies today.

PIT also provides enough space for multiple takeoffs and landings with minimal disruptions to surrounding air traffic.

‘Clearer skies’ for training

COVID-19 has dramatically changed the landscape of major commercial airports across the country. With a drop in travel demand, airlines have been forced to ground planes and cut hundreds of flights throughout their networks. Airports have seen their numbers of daily flights sharply decline.

With flights at record lows, the military is using the emptier airspace for weekly training flights that keep crews qualified and current with their flying skills. Known as “locals,” these flights allow pilots to remain combat ready and practice maneuvers like landings, aerial refueling and low-level flying.

A KC-10 Extender from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst practices touch-and-go’s at PIT in April 2020. (Photo by Evan Dougherty)

Pittsburgh’s military air units – the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 911th Airlift Wing – are among those taking advantage of the clearer airfields.

The 911th is in the latter stages of transitioning from flying the C-130 to the newer and larger C-17 aircraft, which requires new qualifications for pilots. Training flights have been a part of this process as the 911th transitions its mission from flying tactical to strategic airlift.

The 171st is practicing takeoffs and landings with its KC-135 Stratotankers.

The emptier skies  have “certainly been beneficial to military flight training,” said Lt. Col. James D. Akers II, director of operations for the 911th’s 758th Airlift Squadron. “The reduced workload has allowed the 911th Airlift Wing to practice our tactical arrivals and departures, instrument arrivals, as well as touch-and-gos here locally.”

Photo ops

Planespotters and aviation photographers have captured shots of military aircraft performing touch-and-gos at Pittsburgh and other major airports.

In April, a KC-10 from McGuire flew into New York’s LaGuardia Airport for a series of practice landings.

LaGuardia is one of the busiest airports in the U.S. and typically occupies the most crowded airspace in the entire country. With traffic at LGA down more than 90 percent, the KC-10 pilots made a rare appearance at the airport to conduct a routine training flight, drawing the attention of many aviation enthusiasts.

The KC-10 is the largest tanker in the U.S. Air Force and its design is based on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 passenger jet. Entering service in 1981, the KC-10 is capable of carrying 356,000 pounds of fuel, twice as much as the KC-135. The aircraft features both a flying boom and a “hose-and-drogue” system, allowing the KC-10 to refuel a wide range of allied aircraft. The Air Force operates 59 of these airplanes.

Similarly, Dover Air Force Base in Delaware has routinely sent C-5 and C-17 aircraft to practice approaches at nearby Baltimore/Washington International Airport and Washington-Dulles. Dover is home to the 436th and 512th airlift wings and is a major stopover point for cargo planes flying between the U.S. and Europe.

Earlier this year, the 166th Airlift Wing, which operates C-130 Hercules transport planes out of New Castle County Airport in Delaware, began using Philadelphia and Harrisburg International airports to practice landings and low-level flying.

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