C-17's 'Sightseeing Tour' Over Ireland That Drew Complaints from Locals Was Pre-Approved, Base Says

A C-17 Globemaster III taxis at Travis Air Force Base.
A C-17 Globemaster III taxis at Travis Air Force Base, California, April 5, 2020. The aircraft arrived from March Air Reserve Base to support the fight against COVID-19. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. James Hogman)

The crew of a C-17 Globemaster III observed flying over Ireland last month on an alleged sightseeing tour had filed that flight plan with the Air Force and local air traffic control, according to officials.

The C-17, assigned to March Air Reserve Base, California, made headlines overseas after aircraft spotters -- and some disgruntled citizens -- noticed the massive aircraft moving through Irish airspace May 18. According to The Irish Mirror, the pilot, a native of the area, wanted to descend low to give his crew a glimpse of his hometown, as well as a few other locations such as the Cliffs of Moher.

"I am a native of Longford, Ireland, and so we are just giving everybody out here a little hello from us," the pilot is heard saying over the air traffic control recording, the Mirror reported.

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Despite claims that the transport crew disrupted air traffic for their "joyride," they did not deviate from the flight plan already filed and maintained radio contact with either Shannon or Dublin air traffic control for the duration of the flight, said Maj. Perry Covington, a spokesman for March.

"The crew was on a mission approved by Air Force Reserve Command and flying on an approved flight plan," Covington said Tuesday. The crew had requested an altitude change to fly lower, but they did not do so in accordance with safety protocols, he added.

Following the news reports, Air Mobility Command leadership had questions for the crew, but Covington said he was unaware of any official investigation into their conduct.

There were four pilots, two loadmasters and a member from the base maintenance group acting as the flying crew chief on board, he said.

According to the Single Mobility System, a web-based portal that tracks mobility assets, the flight plan recorded the crew leaving March; stopping in Bangor, Maine, for fuel; and then landing in Casement Aerodrome, also known as Baldonnel, a military air base southwest of Dublin, Covington said.

The C-17 -- call sign SLAM69 -- eventually touched down at Scotland's Glasgow Prestwick Airport, where it remained overnight. The crew had diplomatic clearance to land in both locations, Covington said.

"It is standard procedure for a training mission to go into more than one airfield so our pilots can become proficient in flight planning, landing and taking off from unfamiliar fields," he said in an email. "It is also standard for a crew on an operational mission in the C-17 to make multiple stops. This training mission mirrored what could be a standard duty day and pace that our C-17 crews could expect on an operational mission."

The following day, the crew flew a local mission out of Prestwick; returned to Prestwick for a second night's stay; and finally headed to Bangor for a fuel stop before returning to March.

Eoin Ó Broin, an Irish Sinn Féin member of parliament whose district includes Baldonnel, told the Mirror that several of his constituents had complained about the C-17. He said he would make inquiries with Defence Minister Simon Coveney about the aircraft's "noisy" arrival.

In 2019, a C-17 out of Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, broke diplomatic protocols to land at Shannon to transport a badly wounded sailor to University Hospital Limerick, about 30 minutes from that airport.

Prestwick itself has seen increased U.S. military flight traffic in recent years.

According to data provided by Air Mobility Command, there was an uptick of cargo aircraft, primarily C-17s, stopping there between 2015 and 2019. AMC aircraft landed at Prestwick 936 times during that time, including 659 overnight stays in the area, officials said in 2019.

Sending traffic to Prestwick has taken some strain off bases such as Ramstein, Germany, which typically sees heavy cargo aircraft and tanker traffic, and Lakenheath, England, which hosts an abundance of fighter aircraft, an instructor pilot who flies mobility aircraft told Military.com in 2019.

"If the main military bases are at capacity, then lower-priority missions will be pushed to locations like Prestwick to ensure they can keep moving and not [have to] wait for openings at the military bases," the instructor pilot said. "And the United Kingdom is accommodating with Diplomatic Clearance, whereas other countries, [it] requires days to weeks advanced coordination, and other airports may not have the ability to handle the volume or flexibility required for AMC missions."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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