Have you seen the giant twin-propeller military aircraft at Mountain Empire Airport in recent years? The Bell Boeing V-22 Ospreys have become regular visitors as the crews practice over the region. And they have been a boon to the survival of the airport.
“Ospreys come in all the time,” said Brian Burkett, airport manager. “They come here for training and maneuvers.” Burkett said the Marines bring in their own people for maintenance on the Ospreys but the airport mechanics are there to lend a hand. And the crews purchase thousands of gallons of jet fuel.
“They are big for us in the fuel they use,” said Mike Edwards, airport commission member. “The airport needs to be self-supporting and when the military comes in and buys fuel those fuel sales help support the airport and allow us to offer more services.”
The increased military use helps the budget, said Burkett. Expenses include utilities, taxes, maintenance, payroll, projects, and a courtesy car.
Fuel sales and hangar rentals are sources of income for the airport, which is operated by the Smyth-Wythe Airport Commission, a joint commission of representatives from Smyth and Wythe counties and the towns of Wytheville and Marion.
Entities that use the airport include county and state police, Wings Medical, corporate, military, crop dusters, FBI, AEP, pipeline patrol, federal and state politicians visiting the area, local use for cargo, insurance companies for property damage verification, and medical evacuation as well as the annual Remote Area Medical clinic.
The Osprey is an impressive sight at Mountain Empire. With a body over 53 feet long and propeller blades about 38 feet each, folding rotors and a rotating wing, the aircraft has great maneuverability, flies up to 316 miles per hour, and has been used by the Marines since 2000. The Osprey has been used in combat and rescue in the Middle East.
“My wife and I had the chance to be at the airport when one V-22 came in,” said Edwards. “It is an awesome sight. My wife [Susan] got a chance to go onboard the plane and her comment was that one would not want to fly any distance in that plane. It is a basic airframe to carry troops into and out of a combat zone (no frills). The day we were there we got to meet a female pilot that Brian said was the first female Navy pilot to fly the V-22. She was awesome!”
“The Ospreys come into Mountain Empire for training flights around the area, which some people get annoyed over,” said Edwards, “but you have to remember these Marines have a duty to provide for our freedom, and training is utmost in safety. They represent the sound of freedom we all enjoy, and these crew members deserve our thanks for services they perform.”
“That same day we were there, a mother and her three kids got a chance to go onboard the V-22 and were a smiling group when they got off the plane.”
Other military aircraft that have visited the airport include the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters. The mountainous terrain in this region is similar to that in other countries in which the military might be engaged and offers great training for the crews of these machines.
“Before we had jet fuel, the Ospreys (and other military aircraft) would just come in and land,” said Burkett. “Now that they are able to refuel, they can stay around and practice.” He added that the airport is looking into building a concrete pad for the Ospreys to sit on because the heat from their engines can melt the asphalt.
Small perks the military training flights enjoy are pizzas donated by local restaurants, Edwards said. “The day we were there a local dairy also donated cartons of chocolate milk for the crew to enjoy.”
“We really appreciate the restaurants that provide the pizza,” he said. “These retail establishments that help out are proudly displayed on the airport Facebook page, providing exposure to local businesses that support the efforts of attracting business at the airport that translates into local dollars for many of the supporting entities.”
“We’re fortunate to have the airport,” said Marion Mayor David Helms during a visit in the spring of 2018. “I’m not sure people understand the benefit to business and the local economy.”
Burkett said numerous business and pleasure craft visit the airport. The owners or travelers may be visiting Marion, Wytheville, or surrounding areas for business or tourist destinations such as Hungry Mother State Park, Mount Rogers, and Rural Retreat Lake, which is popular with fishermen.
“They are all spending money here,” Burkett said. “Corporate jets bring officials in for inspecting equipment or for prospective business. There are legal representatives and medical people. The hangars house planes for doctors and lawyers, contractors and business owners, for business or for pleasure.”
“The nearly mile-long runway can accommodate nearly any business jet out there,” he said.
“It’s a magnet to your community,” Burkett said of the airport. “It draws people in. If people are looking for a place to put a business, one of the first things they look for is an airport. It’s a big thing. We get used quite a bit.”
The airport is also used as a staging area in the event of an emergency or natural disaster, for collection of supplies and meetings in the conference room, and hangar shelter for helicopters during storms. Mountain Empire is a “safe harbor” for aircraft in the hurricane zone. Medical flights come in at all hours picking up patients from areas where a helicopter cannot land.
Founded in 1958, Mountain Empire Airport is adjacent to Interstate 81 and convenient to local businesses and industries along the I-81 and I-77 corridors.
Burkett and his staff of one full-time and one part-time maintenance crew handle fueling, snow plowing, mowing and work on equipment. A secretary manages the office during the week.
“We save money by working on equipment ourselves,” rather than bring in outside help, he said. “We have a gifted mechanic – Curtis Pennington – who has saved the airport thousands of dollars in aircraft maintenance.”
Learn more at mtnempireairport.com and on the Facebook page: Mountain Empire Airport (KMKJ), where you can see more photos of the V-22 Osprey and other aircraft that use the airport.