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Military pilots use West Virginia terrain as training for mountainous flying

By GREG JORDAN | Bluefield Daily Telegraph | Published: March 22, 2020

ATHENS, W. Va. (Tribune News Service) -- Mercer County's residents sometimes see and hear military aircraft flying overhead, but visits from huge cargo planes or fast jets don't signal anything dramatic; it just so happens that West Virginia's mountains make it a good place for training pilots.

Athens residents recently shot a video of a large cargo plane which appeared to be a C-17, an aircraft capable of transporting tons of cargo and paratroopers. Bluefield City Manager Dane Rideout, who is also a pilot and a retired U.S. Army Colonel, said seeing something like a C-17 in Mercer County's skies isn't too unusual.

"Military aircraft routinely come up, especially into West Virginia, to do mountainous flying," Rideout said. "You know, shoot approaches into areas where they don't normally shoot approaches into and stuff."

The person who shot the C-17 video in Athens was on the initial approach fix for Runway 23, which is located at the Mercer County Airport. The aircraft's crew was doing either an ILS or RNAV approach to the runway.

"An ILS is an Instrument Landing System, it's the instruments inside the cockpit which actually allow them to follow an imaginary line to the end of the runway, the approach to the runway," Rideout said. "The RNAV does the exact same thing, but it uses GPS technology in order to do. That's what they're doing. They're just practicing approaches.  I'm a pilot myself, so I do the same approaches; and uniquely, in Athens, right over top of Concord (University), is the initial approach fix for Runway 23, so that's why you would see things. It didn't land there because a C-17's too heavy to land in Mercer County. A C-130 is as heavy as they can get out there."

The region's mountainous terrain offers good training areas for military pilots, especially for low-leveling flying and "nap-of-the-earth," flying which is done to avoid detection, he said.

"It's very unique flying around here," Rideout said. "If you can fly in West Virginia, you can fly just about anywhere. It's pretty challenging. They like it a lot. You'll see a lot of military aircraft over at Mountain Empire, the runway that's right next to I-81 as you're going to Bristol (Va.) The reason is that they've got contract fuel there. They have a contract with the military to refuel aircraft, so you'll constantly see the CV-22s which is the Osprey; it looks like a plane, but lands like a helicopter."

Military aircraft can refuel at the Mercer County Airport if they need to do so. This doesn't happen regularly because the airport does not have contract fuel, but Mercer County has one of the airports where it can be done, Rideout said.

gjordan@bdtonline.com

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