Relax, it’s one of ours

The sight of a C-17 doing low approaches at a civilian airport in the San Francisco Bay area generated a flood of panicked phone calls to authorities and the news media on Tuesday, April 26.

The large transport, out of McGuire AFB in New Jersey, had come to Buchanan Field Airport (CCR) in Contra Costa County so that the crew could get experience flying into a non-military airport.

According to Keith Freitas, director of airports for Contra Costa County, the sight and noise of the C-17 alarmed the community because it was something out of the ordinary.

“Normally people see these planes flying at 8,000 feet, so when one comes over at 2,000 feet, that changes things for them,” he said.

The C-17, named the “Spirit of Berlin,” flew over the area for approximately 15 minutes.

Freitas said he received a phone call from the crew of the C-17 before they arrived to let him know the big airplane was coming. Freitas, realizing that the non-aviation public might become alarmed at the sight of such a large airplane at low altitude, suggested that the crew divert to nearby Travis Air Force Base instead.

“But they came here so the crew could get the experience,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have the authority to deny any aircraft — including a C-17 — access to federal airspace. He tried to explain that to the many people who telephoned to complain.

“There were a lot of calls,” he noted. “In a single year we get at most 400 noise complaints. In a four-hour period we got 110.”

The day after the visit, the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, carried a story about the visit. Sandra Ahart, one of the residents interviewed for the story, stated that the C-17 was “doing dips and drops” and that the pilot “had no business doing what he was doing.” She said that the appearance of the C-17 left her shaken because she feared a Sept. 11th-type attack. The visit also alarmed children at a nearby elementary school. They were brought in from the playground and school officials called police.

An Air Force spokesperson countered the airplane was doing normal approaches on a routine training mission. The C-17 did not land at Buchanan.

However, there were some people who enjoyed the unusual visitor. Freitas notes among the hundreds of complaints he received, he also got messages from people who were pleased to see the C-17 close up.

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