LOUISVILLE, Ga. — Flashing lights, streaming flares and whooshing booms in bright daylight or on a background of star-spangled night are nothing new, say rural residents of Jefferson County.
For years they have seen low flying fighter jets and felt the windows rattle when one occasionally breaks the sound barrier. They say they have learned that when you hear the building roar of their engines, you had best use your peripheral vision if you hope to catch a glimpse of the angular spear of screaming metal making it. These jets move so fast, they are usually passing
overhead before the sound reaches you.
Louisville sits square in the middle of the Bulldog Military Operation Area, a roughly 100-mile zone over much of Jefferson County from the surface up to about 27,000 feet that is routinely used by several Air Force bases for training on fighter jets including the F-16, F-15, F-18, A-10 and heavier aircraft such as the C-130.
“It’s one of the best training airspaces in the U.S., definitely in the Southeast, for us. It has electronic ranges as well as a lot of area,” said Col. Nicholas Gentile Jr., the commander of the 169th Fighter Wing of the South Carolina Air National Guard. “Every day and every night we’re here. It’s one of our primary areas we work in.”
According to Kathleen Bergen of the Federal Aviation Administration, “military operations areas” are designated to contain nonhazardous military flight activities including air combat maneuvers, air intercepts and low-altitude
Though any military aircraft can fly in the Bulldog MOA, the flights must be scheduled with the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air
Force Base in South Carolina, Bergen said.
The minimum flight deck in this area is 500 feet over most of the rural areas and 1,500 feet over population areas such as Louisville, but Gentile said they try to avoid flying over the city.
After the June 7 collision between two F-16s that were training in the area, Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston Jr. said that the unit was preparing for a summertime deployment to the Pacific and expected flights in the training area to resume in a matter of days.
The Jefferson County bombing training range is only a 15-minute flight from the South Carolina
Other officials said that the National Guard, Marines and Air Force all use the area.
Pilots such as Louisville Mayor Larry Morgan have been sharing airspace with the military here since the 1980s.
“When the Bulldog MOA is operational, the towers in Augusta will tell you that the area is hot and then you’re on your own. But these guys know you’re there before you ever see them,” Morgan said. “I had a buddy who was taking a check flight for his private pilot’s license and I went with him. We were flying down around Midville, coming back this way, and off in the distance I saw two jets coming our way. One went below us and one above us. It
was a thrill, really. Maybe you have to be a pilot to appreciate all this stuff.”
Morgan said that while in flight he has encountered military jets in the area 15 or 20 times.
“There have been times when I was flying around in the summertime and I’d see a big transport jet flying at low altitude,” Morgan said. “I’ve seen that a lot, even in the last few years. It’s
pretty neat because I’m above him and he knows I’m there. These are huge airplanes. It’s a really neat thing to see.”
Usually, Morgan said, the jets are at higher altitudes than he will fly.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve heard any sonic booms,” Morgan said. “They kind of cut that out. That usually happens when they are running the afterburners. Those things are capable, at altitude, of 1,400 mph. That’s 2.05 mach, that’s fast. If you’re going that fast and you make an abrupt change in direction … that’s what makes that boom.”
Even after an incident like the collision, when much of how the pilots train and the equipment they use to do it remains a mystery to many, those like Morgan seem comforted that the jets have returned to the area.
“It was a standard maneuver, fighter jet stuff. They know what they are doing, but sometimes things
happen,” Morgan said. “Really, they are there to protect us.”