KFP: Confusion whirls as military helicopters fly overhead

by Wes Brown

Two Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station helicopters performing confidential nighttime practice drills in and around Kinston Monday night left many city residents, including the mayor, concerned as to who sent them and why.

“I feel like an idiot that something was obviously going on and I had no idea what it was,” said Elizabeth Brown, who, outside her Cameron Drive home, counted as many as three black unmarked helicopters circling a cloudy Kinston night sky around 10 p.m.

There were actually two helicopters, Don Howard, director of the Kinston Regional Jetport, confirmed for The Free Press Tuesday afternoon.

Howard said military personnel, believed to be from Cherry Point MCAS, called the jetport Monday night “out of courtesy” to tell aviation officials in Kinston they would be performing nighttime practice exercises between 8 p.m. and midnight just outside the city’s air pattern.

Howard did not know the extent of the drills, only to say they were confidential.

Turns out Howard, the dispatchers manning the jetport’s air tower and the aviators flying the helicopters, were the only ones who knew of the operation.

Lt. Hector Alejandro, of Cherry Point MCAS Public Affairs, could not confirm or deny if any aircraft of theirs was in the air. He said the air station is still tracking the situation and should know more information by today.

A representative at the Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro told The Free Press that there are not any helicopters stationed at his installation. A Camp Lejeune spokesman could not confirm the choppers were a Marine Corps “bird.”

Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy wishes he knew more around 8:30 p.m., when he and his wife first heard propellers slowly and loudly whooshing over their home.

Murphy called the practice drill a “thorn in his side.”

“I’m thankful we are free and live in a country where we are defended by such an elite group of men and women,” Murphy said. “All I want is a courtesy call informing of me when they plan to use our airspace.”

Murphy, as well as the city manager and police chief, received numerous calls Monday night into Tuesday afternoon from city residents alarmed by the show.

They had no explanation, along with Chief Deputy Chris Hill of the Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office, First Sgt. Charles Johnston of the N.C. Highway’s Patrol Kinston barracks and Lenoir County Emergency Preparedness Director Roger Dail.

Social media sites blew up at the sight and sound of the choppers, which one Camp Lejeune Marine — based on eyewitness accounts — described as an older model Huey, due to its slow whooshing propeller sound.

One person posted on Facebook there was a jailbreak. Another person comically tweeted the aircrafts were flying in the state championship hardware recently won by Kinston High School men’s basketball team.

But all claims were unfounded.

“Our residents are not used to these types of exercises,” said Murphy, who added city administrators are still looking for answers on the sonic boom that rattled Kinston two months ago.

Howards said in his 32 years as a jetport executive, the covert operations happen quite often in and around Lenoir County, but in non-residential areas where people are not impacted.

“It’s nothing unusual,” Howard said. “It’s common airspace. Down to 500 feet, they can fly anywhere they want.”

Some Kinston residents said the pilots flirted with the free rein, driving their choppers close to tree level.

“It was constant,” Brown said. “Every few minutes, a helicopter would fade off into the distance and another one would pass.”

Joel Smith agreed.

Smith first heard the helicopters at around 9 p.m. outside his computer programming studio on Vernon Avenue and then again around 11 p.m. at his Stockton Drive home.

He watched the two fly about three times in a circular route from downtown Kinston to Lenoir Memorial Hospital.

“I though it was a bit odd,” Smith said. “They spent an awful lot of time in the air for a helicopter.”

 

Wesley Brown can be reached at

252-559-1075 or wbrown@freedomenc.com. Follow him on Twitter @KinstonCrimeSpy.

Follow up story by WNCT