KINSTON – The military helicopters that made an unexpected, low-level flight over Kinston and Lenoir County a week ago were an unknown entity to local residents.
On Monday, residents got to see the face of that unit — a very apologetic face.
“I am here, as a two-star general in the Marine Corps, to tell you, ‘I’m sorry; I’m sorry,’ ” Maj. Gen. Jon Davis, commander of the 2nd Marine Air Wing at the Cherry Point, told the members of the Kinston City Council. “That’s what good neighbors do.”
At least three unmarked helicopters flew over the Kinston area around 10 p.m. on March 12, leading many residents to think an escaped convict was on the loose. The helicopters hovered over the area for several hours, the Kinston mayor and police officials were flooded with calls, and social media sites exploded in speculation about what the helicopters were doing.
It was soon revealed the aircraft were U.S. Marine AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters based at Cherry Point.
Davis told the council two flights of two helicopters each went out the night of March 12 on a training mission — military pilots typically train over barren areas of the country, but since the nation’s wars are taking place more and more in urban areas around the world, pilots must become familiar with flying over populated areas.
Davis said the pilots were being trained to “fly over lighted city environments” using night-vision goggles.
The Cobra pilots flew west from Cherry Point over the Croatan and Hoffman forests, and then headed north to Lenoir County. They hovered 1,500 to 3,000 feet above ground level, and maneuvered over property south of the Neuse River, across from downtown Kinston, according to information provided by Davis to the City Council.
Marine officials had contacted the control tower at the Kinston Regional JetPort before the helicopters took off, but no other local leaders, a practice Davis promised to rectify.
“From all of us in the wing, we’re really sorry,” the general said.
Davis found a very forgiving audience in the Kinston council members, and those in the audience, which included the players and coaches of the Kinston High School girls’ and boys’ basketball teams who were being honored Monday for their recent tournament wins.
Boys’ head coach Wells Gulledge gave the general his street address, telling Davis: “No need to call, mark it down.”
Mayor B.J. Murphy told the general that “Kinston prides itself on being a very military-friendly town.”
Councilman Sammy C. Aiken, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent time at Cherry Point, noted the facility’s motto.
“Going through your main gate, it says it all, ‘Pardon our noise, it’s the sound of freedom,’ ” Aiken recited.