Beaufort News

Accounts differ on no-show by jets

Bill Baird was as disappointed as anybody.

The air traffic manager of the FAA's control tower at Hilton Head Airport thought he had done all he could to clear the island's airspace for a fly-over tribute to the nation's troops, so he went to the beach himself Monday to see the four Air Force F-16 Vipers zoom past.

But the fighter jets never made it.

"I was out there along with everybody else," Baird said, noting that a number of people called the airport Tuesday seeking an explanation for the planes' no-show. "I saw them turn around. They got as far as Parris Island, and then they turned around."

He was among the hundreds who left the beach disappointed. He said he thinks the Air Force jet pilots confused Parris Island for Hilton Head Island.

"Obviously, (the pilots) were looking at the wrong island," Baird said in a letter to the editor published in today's newspaper. "The Air Force public affairs office should just admit they blew it."

Salute from the Shore -- the nonprofit group that organized the fly-over that started at the South Carolina-North Carolina border and was to run the length of S.C.'s coast -- said in an email Monday that the Independence Day event was cut short because of air traffic over Hilton Head.

A spokesman from Shaw Air Force Base, where the Vipers are stationed, said the same thing Tuesday. "The problem was that there was air traffic in the area," said Rob Sexton. "The mission leader wisely chose not to fly into the area."

But Baird said he's not sure how that could be. He said he ordered a hold on planes using the island airport during the time the F-16s were expected in the area, so no aircraft should have been in their way.

Spectators were asked to dress patriotically and wave to the jets as they passed. They also were to be recorded by cameras on land and in the air, and the videos sent as a token of appreciation to military personnel serving overseas.

Tim Reeves, 53, of Greenville was among the disappointed spectators who waited for an hour after the scheduled fly-over time, about 1:15 p.m., hoping to catch a glimpse. Reeves had gathered about 100 people to form the shape of a heart around the letters "USA," which were spelled out on North Forest Beach using palm fronds, he said.

"We were excited for the fly-over and wanted to be a part of the video they were taking, as well," Reeves said. "Had the jets showed up, it would have been the perfect Fourth of July gesture. ... It was a slap in the face."

In his email Monday, John Michael Otis Jr., president of Salute from the Shore, apologized to Hilton Head beachgoers and said the nonprofit organization already is "thinking of ways we can highlight Hilton Head for next year's Salute."

Last year's salute came off better. An Air Force C-17, a much larger plane that the F-16s, flew low and slow over the state's beaches as crowds below waved American flags.

Related contentBeach-goers salute troops; air traffic prevented Hilton Head fly-over, July 5, 2011