WILMINGTON — While the pandemic has led to a lull in air travel, including at the Wilmington International Airport (ILM), the U.S. Department of Defense remains a high-dollar benefactor of the local airport.
Military aircraft have found a welcome home at ILM, where Modern Aviation, a “fixed-base operator” that works on airport property, holds a $4 million Department of Defense contract to refuel military aircraft in need of services in the Wilmington area.
The company hosts aircraft from U.S. Marine Corps stations in Cherry Point and Beaufort, among other military locations.
While the arrangement has led to a profitable addition to services offered at ILM, military aircraft also make use of the airport for training exercises.
“The military jets use the approach to ILM as training for approaching civilian fields as they would in forward deployed areas,” according to airport director Julie Wilsey.
ILM accepts grant money from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Wilsey added in an email. As a condition of those funds, the military is authorized to make use of its runways and taxiways.
Residents have taken notice lately, calling the airport and county officials about the large volume of military air traffic. It prompted ILM to release a Facebook post last week, sharing contacts for the military’s noise abatement and community hotlines.
Responses were generally supportive of the military presence: “Think of it as an air show,” wrote one poster. “I love it when they fly over.”
Another wrote: “Don’t mind the noise but do not like my house shaking.”
Military pilots are exempt from FAA noise restrictions and the 1,000-foot height requirement, according to Wilsey.
“PARDON OUR NOISE,” exclaims the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station New River website. “IT’S THE SOUND OF FREEDOM.”
Last July, Modern Aviation obtained a treasured amendment to its contract that allows it to refuel military planes while the engines still run. The new arrangement has likely led to more frequent military usage of ILM airfields, according to Bill Cherry, who founded Modern Aviation’s predecessor.
Cherry started Air Wilmington, Inc. in 1975. He said the company procured a Department of Defense contract in the late 1970s. In 1986, it bought out the assets of Aeronautics, Inc., a different company that previously had a Wilmington-area military fuel contract.
Air Wilmington was a “fixed-base operator,” a type of entity licensed to operate on airport territory and perform services, like refueling and maintenance.
With that contract in tow, Cherry said, military aircraft would arrive at ILM with their government credit card and receive fuel. Officials at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Cherry Point eventually turned exercises in Wilmington into weekend trips, he said, to maximize flight time before aircraft inspections were required.
“Any of these airplanes — Coast Guard, Navy, Marines, Air Force — are using that card to pay for their fuel,” Cherry said.
For years, Air Wilmington tried to obtain what’s called a “hot refueling” contract — where aircraft are refueled with the engines still running, and the process can take less than 15 minutes instead of two hours or longer — but was unsuccessful, Cherry said.
“It’s a real political nightmare,” he said, because amending a Department of Defense contract to allow for hot refueling requires the consent of the participating military branches and numerous sub-entities within those branches.
Air Wilmington inked a new deal with the Department of Defense that began August 1, 2017 and runs through the end of March 2021. Spending records show millions of dollars paid out in consistent purchase orders to the company in recent years.
Cherry sold Air Wilmington in 2018 to Modern Aviation, a company with the backing of a private equity fund called “Tiger Infrastructure Partners,” and a stated goal of acquiring fixed-base operators in North America and the Caribbean. Air Wilmington was Modern Aviation’s first such acquisition. Modern Aviation acquired two more fixed-base operators in Denver and Seattle later in 2018.
Richard Formo, the general manager of Modern Aviation, said the contract that expires at the end of March will be extended until a new contract is awarded, or the current one is suspended.
Modern Aviation earned permission to offer hot refueling services to U.S. Military aircraft in July 2020, according to minutes of the New Hanover County Airport Authority.
“This dramatically increases the effectiveness of the unit during training exercises by decreasing required maintenance on the engines, time to stop and restart the aircraft, and the unit’s overall time spent on the ground,” Formo wrote in an email.
Formo said the addition of hot refueling came at the behest of military customers after years of relationship-building.
“The ability to turn an aircraft in 10 to 15 minutes means less strain on the engines and more actual training time for the units,” Formo wrote in an email. “Additionally, this allows the Military to utilize KILM when their home airfields are closed or training missions are needed to maintain their capability and readiness for deployment. This activity also has a meaningful positive economic impact on the local Wilmington economy. As an example, just last week our Military customers rented 16 rental cars and booked 72 hotel rooms for 6 nights.”
Cherry said the new addendum to the existing contract — which was carried over after Modern Aviation’s takeover in 2018 — substantially boosted the amount of fuel sold by the company.
“That has probably doubled their fuel flow in Wilmington,” Cherry said. “They’re doing Ospreys. They’re doing F-18s — F-18s have been real strong in there.”
Harry Stovall, vice chair of the airport authority, said amid the downswing in economic activity at ILM — with flight volumes even dipping beneath 50% of pre-pandemic levels during the past year — the military dollars have been helpful.
Cherry said he has not been heavily involved with the company’s operations since the sale. Modern Aviation also provides maintenance, repair, fuel and other services to civilian customers.
Besides the contingencies associated with FAA grants, and the sought-after services performed by Modern Aviation, an episode from history might shed additional light on ILM’s draw for the Department of Defense.
During World War II, the military occupied the Bluethenthal Field of the Wilmington airport. According to the ILM website, “the airport offered a complete bomber command station and facility support including a hospital and administrative offices.”
After the war, the United States returned the airport to New Hanover County at no cost but with a few conditions. According to the 1947 instrument of transfer between the U.S. government and the county, aircrafts owned or operated by agents or employees of the federal government “shall at all times have the right to use the airport in common with others.”
The agreement continues, stating that while the government’s use of the airport may be limited, it cannot be limited to below 15% of the capacity of the landing area.
If the president or Congress were to declare “any emergency,” then the government would have the right “to the full, unrestricted possession, control and use of the landing area, building areas, and airport facilities.”
Marine Corps Air Stations Beaufort and Cherry Point did not return requests for comment.
The construction of a second fixed-base operator at ILM is expected to begin in May. The company, Aero Center Wilmington, will include two aviation hangers on 6 acres of airport property and offer parking, storage and maintenance services, according to the Wilmington Business Journal.
ILM announced in March that flights to Chicago will be reinstated this Spring, and a flight to Boston will be added this summer. The airport hopes to hire a lobbyist this year.
ILM supports more than 16,000 jobs and had an economic output of more than $2 billion in 2019, according to a report released in January.
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