HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Hilton Head Island beachgoers won’t look up to empty skies this Fourth of July, according to organizers of Salute from the Shore.
The nonprofit group that sponsored last year’s low-altitude, patriotic fly-over of the South Carolina coast by four F-16s caught flak when pilots cut the event short before reaching the island due to air traffic. Beachgoers wearing patriotic garb and waving American flags had hoped to greet the jets, but were disappointed.
This year, organizers say they expect the fly-over to cover the state’s entire coast.
John Michael Otis Jr., president of Salute from the Shore, said organizers and pilots have contacted air traffic controllers, airports and agencies along the coast to warn them. They also have asked the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Department of Defense to keep airspace clear.
“Compared to other parts of the coast, you don’t have a busy airport so close by, which makes things a little more tricky to navigate,” Otis said. “This year, we’ve reached out to the airport and several (air traffic control) towers that work in cooperation in that area to eliminate any confusion. We will continue to be proactive with them, but we must have their help to ensure the airspace is clear for 30-40 seconds.”
Otis said the pilots plan to fly south of Hilton Head and bank past the Harbour Town Lighthouse before heading back through Bluffton.
Last year, small planes near Hilton Head prevented the jets from safely flying over the beach, according to Col. Charlie “Tuna” Moore of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter.
Hilton Head Island Airport air traffic control manager Bill Baird contends no aircraft should have been in their way. The F-16 pilots cut the fly-over short because they feared hitting low-flying civilian aircraft after having a close call near Myrtle Beach, he said. Baird also said neither the airport nor local air traffic controllers were notified of the fly-over by organizers.
This year, controllers and the airport have been notified and will make “every effort to accommodate” the fly-over, Baird said.
“We’ll clear the airspace for them,” he said.
Pilots from the fighter wing will begin the flyover at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Little River, near the North Carolina-South Carolina line.
“This gives Americans a unique and united way to salute the men and women who preserve and protect our freedom,” Salute board member Andy Folsom said in a news release.