Thursday, June 30, 2022

‘Please do your job and quit worrying about jets’: Deb Butler gets scorched for stance on military flights

A U.S. Navy aircraft flies over Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington March 15. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, recently took an interest in the high numbers of military aircraft that make use of the Wilmington International Airport (ILM) for training exercises. For a few reasons, the airport is a welcoming destination for Department of Defense groups, whose personnel simulate overseas landings and takeoffs on the local runways and buy fuel at a private company, Modern Aviation, which operates on ILM grounds.

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Modern Aviation’s ability to conduct “hot refueling,” in which the aircraft’s engines stay running during fill-ups, has increased the attractiveness of Wilmington as a hub for training exercises. It has also made the military’s presence more noticeable. The airport’s “fuel flowage” during September was 488,116 gallons, up 146% from September 2019.

Butler emailed a group of more than two dozen — a collection of local politicians and officials, U.S. Marine Corps personnel, regulators from the Federal Aviation Administration and more — to follow up on a meeting she hosted Monday, Oct. 25 that included stakeholders from the public and private sectors.

“The presence of military aircraft at ILM is not news to any of you, nor is the public outcry concerning the noise and propriety of said presence,” Butler wrote in the Oct. 27 email. (Read her email in full at the end of this article.)

“So, I will not delineate contextual detail here because how we got here is likely the subject of some debate and ongoing investigations,” she continued. “Whether or not it is ultimately determined by the courts or by other agencies that the presence of military assets at ILM is appropriate at all, it is imperative that we work together to ameliorate the damaging effects of these assets on our community now.”

Butler then thanked the FAA, the Marine Corps, ILM reps and Modern Aviation “for making the meeting an exercise in candid and respectful dialogue that was solution-based and productive, a rare and welcome outcome these days.” (Butler told WECT that while at first the airport and military were unreceptive to her overtures, the attitude changed once she called the meeting.)

The solutions proposed during the meeting, Butler recapped, included immediately changing flight patterns, “with a likely path over the prison and the wastewater treatment facility rather than the densely populated historic downtown of Wilmington and the ten or more schools located therein.” 

She continued on to question whether or not “federal and state laws have been violated in this case,” insinuating the determination “rests in the hands of the courts, the State Preservation agencies and the Defense Logistic agencies and others.”

“[W]e have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a strong tourism industry, a robust real estate market, and re-building a burgeoning film industry that are vulnerable if we don’t control and manage this noise issue,” Butler wrote.

Her email, sent to the group at 9:14 p.m. Wednesday, received a reply-all 30 minutes later from Julia Olson-Boseman, chairwoman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. 

“Pretty sure no authority member or commissioner was invited to or attended your meeting. I, for one, feel a peace when a military aircraft flies over and I recognize the positive economic impact the military has on our region,” the chair of the commission wrote. “Since I was a child sitting on the beach with my parents, we always looked in admiration at our military aircraft. As an adult sitting on Carolina Beach with my wife and son this past weekend we too enjoyed the safety and beauty of our military as two helicopters flew over. I support our troops.”

Butler, the House Democratic whip, then responded: “So do I Julia. But there is a way to peacefully coexist.”

Olson-Boseman retorted: “You just helped have ILM declared persona not [sic] grata to the military. Congratulations.” 

A Wilmington real estate attorney appointed to the N.C. House of Representatives in 2017, Butler has defended her seat in the previous two elections after being tapped by Gov. Roy Cooper to fill the vacancy in District 18 left by Susi Hamilton. Her New Hanover County-based district includes the rural-but-developing northwestern quadrant and much of the Market Street corridor.

Her email was met with an even sharper reply from Bill Rivenbark, a first-term commissioner. 

“I enjoy the aircraft flying in and out of Wilmington. If that were all the problems we have in North Carolina what a easy problem we would have,” Rivenbark replied all. 

“Pass a budget and then get in touch with me about jets flying over historic downtown. It would be nice for the school Districts to know what the NC budget was to plan for their budget. Please do your job and quit worrying about jets,” he continued.

Butler’s response: “Well Bill. I’m not sure that tone and spirit are helpful, but nice to meet you. How about we find solutions instead? My goodness.”

Butler could not immediately be reached for comment. Olson-Boseman, in an email to Port City Daily, said she was aware Butler held a meeting to discuss the jets. 

“Ultimately, I feel that this is a conversation that needs to be focused between the military and FAA,” Olson-Boseman wrote. “I want ILM to be a welcoming aviation destination and that includes our military, and I would hope the rest of the community does too.”

Deb Butler’s Oct. 27 email in full: 

Good evening to all. Thank you for your attention to this issue and to the content of this email.

I would like to thank those of you to whom this email is directed for your attendance at our meeting on Monday, October 25, 2021. Further, I have copied the Airport Authority Board of Directors as well as the New Hanover County Commissioners because I believe this is an issue that affects our community and is likely of concern to all.

The presence of military aircraft at ILM is not news to any of you, nor is the public outcry concerning the noise and propriety of said presence. So, I will not delineate contextual detail here because how we got here is likely the subject of some debate and ongoing investigations. Whether or not it is ultimately determined by the courts or by other agencies that the presence of military assets at ILM is appropriate at all, it is imperative that we work together to ameliorate the damaging effects of these assets on our community now.

The meeting held on 10/25 was a very collaborative and helpful first step. I want to thank the FAA, the USMC, the representatives of ILM, as well as the community advocates, Modern Aviation and others for making the meeting an exercise in candid and respectful dialogue that was solution-based and productive, a rare and welcome outcome these days. As was stated by the USMC representatives and the FAA, there are steps that can be implemented swiftly that will, in their opinion, greatly reduce the discomfort and noise associated with military flights in and out of ILM. Those include, but are not limited to, changing the flight patterns immediately, with a likely path over the prison and the wastewater treatment facility rather than the densely populated historic downtown of Wilmington and the ten or more schools located therein, as well as directives to pilots about altitude, speed and other contributing factors.

Additionally, it was discussed that the Airport Facility Directory at ILM is out of date and should immediately be revised and when revised, it should spell out clear guidelines for any military aircraft so that pilots understand what is required. Modern Aviation also agreed to publish these new protocols on their website as soon as same become available. That should assist in informing military pilots of their responsibilities when landing and departing from ILM.

As I stated in my opening remarks at our meeting, it is not my intention to vilify the military, the airport nor the FBO, Modern Aviation. But, what I do know that we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a strong tourism industry, a robust real estate market, and re-building a burgeoning film industry that are vulnerable if we don’t control and manage this noise issue. I have personally seen film crews interrupted on three occasions because of jet noise and that concerns me greatly. Further, our citizens are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their homes and the value of their investments. Those cannot be compromised.

Lastly, the ultimate determination about whether or not the military traffic at ILM is compatible with our community will not be made by any of us. Whether or not federal and state laws have been violated in this case rests in the hands of the courts, the State Preservation agencies and the Defense Logistic agencies and others. For now, I am encouraged because I see well-intentioned people working together trying to find solutions and that is a welcome circumstance. I look forward to seeing the memorandum of understanding and the revised airport directory. Thanks to all who engaged and are working on solutions. I look forward to seeing the product of your efforts and as discussed, I will convene another meeting in six months to evaluate progress. The contact information for those in attendance is attached as promised. Many thanks.

Best regards,

Representative Deb Butler


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