By RICK STEELHAMMER

HD Media

CHARLESTON - On Thursday, Sept. 5, more than 30 military aircraft from storm-threatened bases in North Carolina and Virginia made Charleston's Yeager Airport a safe haven from Hurricane Dorian, a refueling station en route to more westerly wait-out sites, or a staging area for relief missions in the days to come.

"This is the most military aircraft we've seen here since Senator (Robert C.) Byrd's funeral," said Yeager's assistant director Nick Keller, as he looked through the window at the newly opened Hershel "Woody" Williams Military Operations Center at the airport's general aviation area.

Outside, personnel from Capital Jet Center were "hot re-fueling" a half-dozen Navy MH-60 Seahawk helicopters as their engines roared and idling rotors churned the air. The Navy helos would soon lift off and fly to a hurricane-free location to the west.

Nearly a dozen Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters parked in formation in front of the Operations Center, where they were refueled and their crews tied down down their rotors. Behind them, a row of three Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft were parked on an otherwise unused taxiway, and a flight of six giant Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters was inbound for a stopover at the Charleston airport.

The lounge inside Capital Jet Service was jammed with Army, Navy and Marine aviators waiting for their aircraft to be refueled or to be bused to downtown Charleston hotels. While waiting, many of them dug into snack bags provided by Yeager to sample pepperoni rolls, munch on chocolate chip cookies and hydrate with bottled water.

"About 100 military people will be spending the night in Charleston," Keller said. "Some of the Army folks will be flying on to Texas, and some will stay here and may be called in for storm recovery work."

Keller and his associates briefed leaders of the Marine Osprey unit, at Yeager for a multi-day stay, on training possibilities in the area to put their storm-avoidance deployment to West Virginia to good use.

During past hurricane seasons, a few military aircraft from coastal bases have flown to Charleston to avoid damage from high wind and water.

But since last year, when Keller and fellow assistant director James Mason began promoting Yeager as a refueling site and staging area for training on a number of leased strip mines within a short hop of Charleston, military activity here has picked up dramatically.

"We just got a call asking if we could handle anywhere from 10 to 40 F-15 fighters, and I said 'yes,'" Keller said. "They ended up deciding to go somewhere else, but are keeping us in mind as an alternative site."

Yeager's popularity during Hurricane Dorian has something to with flight crews remembering the hospitality and service they received when stopping at the hilltop, civilian airport in recent months, Keller said.

"Their presence helps us, because of all the fuel we sell them, and all the lodging and food per diems they spend in Charleston," Keller said. "We help them by offering things like hot refueling and homemade cookies, and great places to train that aren't thousands of miles away. It's a niche market for us that we want to continue to develop."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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