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Your Armed Forces Day guide to the military aircraft in Charleston airspace

  • Updated
AWACS leads Formation

Planes from Carrier Air Wing 11 fly in formation over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Seaman Aiyana S. Paschal/U.S. Navy

NORTH CHARLESTON — Drive down the aptly named Aviation Avenue and other roads near Charleston Air Force Base and you'll no doubt see some familiar military aircraft.

But all across the Lowcountry, there are dozens of plane-watching opportunities. And identifying some of the flying craft can be a little tough sometimes. With a little practice, the characteristics of most will become easier to spot.

For Armed Forces Day, May 15, here's a curated list of 10 military jets, prop planes and helicopters and their general characteristics to identify as you scan the skies:

C-17 standalone_03.JPG (copy)

Two C-17 cargo jets prepare to land for the 4 millionth flying hour for the C-17 fleet on Jan. 15, 2020, at Joint Base Charleston in North Charleston. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

C-17A Globemaster III

This large transport plane is stationed at the base as part of the Air Force's transport mission. It delivers troops and cargo to bases around the world. It has a payload of 170,900 pounds.

The C-17 is distinctive and easily identifiable. It has thousands of arrivals and departures per year at Joint Base Charleston.

Measurements: 174 feet long with a wingspan of 169.8 feet

Speed: 518 mph

Ceiling: 45,000 feet

Armament: None

Crew: Three (two pilots and loadmaster)

Fact: The first production model of the C-17 was delivered to CAFB on June 14, 1993.


A P-8 Poseidon flies over the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea. Petty Officer 3rd Class Will Hardy/U.S. Navy

P-8A Poseidon

This multipurpose patrol plane is used by the Navy primarily for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. It performs intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions around the world and participates in search and rescues.

Measurements: 129.6 feet long with a wingspan of 123.6 feet

Speed: 564 mph

Ceiling: 41,000 feet

Armament: Missiles, torpedoes and sonobuoys

Crew: Nine

Fact: It's a military version of the Boeing 737.


An Air Force Reserve aircrew flying a C-130 Hercules assigned to the 910th Airlift Wing, Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, performs aerial spraying over Joint Base Charleston. The unit is the only one of its kind in the Air Force. Senior Airman Dennis Sloan/U.S. Air Force

C-130J Super Hercules

A tactical transport plane capable of a wide variety of missions, including aerial refueling, special operations, airlift support, aerial spray, firefighting, disaster relief and weather reconnaissance. Lockheed Martin's turboprop can carry up to 42,000 pounds and take off and land on short, unprepared strips.

Measurements: 97.8 feet long with a wingspan of 132.6 feet

Speed: 417 mph

Ceiling: 28,000 feet

Armament: Cannons, missiles and bombs (on Ghostrider gunship)

Crew: Three (two pilots and loadmaster) or more, depending on mission

Fact: This is the plane of choice for the Air Force Reserve's Hurricane Hunters. 

harrier carrier

A Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II prepares to land aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu in the East China Sea. Petty Officer 3rd Class Dustin Knight/U.S. Navy

AV-8B Harrier II

Although this short takeoff/vertical landing jet has been out of production since 2003, some Marine squadrons are still flying them, including those at Cherry Point, N.C. The planes will be by replaced by F-35s.

Measurements: 46.3 feet long with a wingspan of 30.3 feet

Speed: 647 mph

Ceiling: 38,000 feet

Armament: Cannons, rockets, missiles and bombs

Crew: One

Fact: It takes up to eight Marines to remove or install the Harrier's Rolls-Royce Pegasus turbofan engine. 


An F-35B Lightning II performs a vertical landing at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The F-35B is the short-takeoff and vertical- landing variant of the jet. The aircraft is with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501. Cpl. Jonah Lovy/U.S. Marine Corps

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 is the newest multirole stealth fighter being deployed by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. It's designed to replace aging fleets of F-16s and several other planes, but the program has suffered several delays. 

Measurements: 51.4 feet long with a wingspan of 35 feet

Speed: 1,200+ mph (Mach 1.6)

Ceiling: 50,000+ feet

Armament: Wide variety of weapons can be carried internally in stealth mode; ordnance payload is more than 18,000 pounds

Crew: One

Fact: Marine pilots are being trained in Beaufort in the F-35B, the short takeoff/vertical landing version of the jet. 

F-16 Sc Guard

An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 157th Fighter Squadron at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Hopkins flies away after taking on fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker during routine mid-air refueling training. Senior Master Sgt. Kendra M. Owenby/U.S. Air National Guard

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F-16 Fighting Falcon

A multirole fighter aircraft that has succeeded in air-to-air and air-to-surface combat. Its life has been extended due to delays in the F-35. International demand remains high for the versatile jet. The plane is flown by the S.C. Air National Guard.

Measurements: 49.4 feet long with a wingspan of 32.7 feet

Speed: 1,500+ mph (Mach 2+)

Ceiling: 50,000+ feet

Armament: Cannons, missiles and conventional munitions

Crew: One or two

Fact: Lockheed Martin moved the F-16 production line to Greenville. The facility also has a contract to overhaul the fighters for the Air Force.

Navy F-18 Hornet

A Navy F/A-18 Hornet moves into place for refueling by an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron Detachment 4 over the skies of Iraq. Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force

F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet

The Navy and Marine Corps deploy this all-weather fighter and attack aircraft. Several Hornet squadrons operate out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. Both services can launch the jets from aircraft carriers, but the Marines are moving solely to the F-35 for carrier duty.

Measurements: Hornet: 56 feet long with a wingspan of 40.4 feet; Super Hornet: 60.3 feet long with a wingspan of 44.9 feet

Speed: 1,300+ mph (Mach 1.7+ Hornet and Mach 1.8+ Super Hornet)

Ceiling: 50,000+ feet

Armament: Cannons, rockets, missiles, mines and bombs

Crew: One or two

Fact: The Blue Angels, the Navy's flight demonstration squadron, now fly the Super Hornet after 34 years in the Hornet.  

MH-65 Dolphin rescue demo.jpg (copy) (copy)

A Coast Guardsman demonstrates a rescue from the side of a Coast Guard helicopter in 2018. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

MH-65 Dolphin

A patrol and search-and-rescue helicopter operated from Coast Guard bases and cutters. While the choppers seen in our area are based in Savannah, one is on duty at the Sector Charleston air facility.

Measurements: 44.4 feet long with a rotor diameter of 39.2 feet

Speed: 201 mph

Ceiling: 18,000 feet

Armament: Machine guns, rifles

Crew: Four (two pilot, two crew)

Fact: Dolphins are used extensively in lifesaving operations after hurricanes.

UH-60 Black Hawk  Moncks Corner pilot13.JPG (copy)

UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter piloted by Brandon Jackson, a Moncks Corner native, prepares to land during a ceremony in his hometown on April 23, 2021, in Moncks Corner. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

UH-60 Black Hawk 

This helicopter can transport an entire 11-person, fully equipped infantry squad in most weather conditions. The S.C. Army National Guard flies the chopper.

Measurements: 64.8 feet long with a rotor diameter of 53.7 feet

Speed: 183 mph

Ceiling: 19,000 feet

Armament: Machine guns, missiles and rockets

Crew: Four (two pilots, two crew)

Fact: Critical components are armored, and the airframe is designed to crush progressively to protect occupants. 


Air Force Staff Sgt. Chase Shands, from the  380th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, marshals an E-3 Sentry for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/U.S. Air Force

E-3 Sentry (AWACS)

The Airborne Warning and Control System jet is easily identified because it has a large radar housed in a rotating, saucer-shaped dome 11 feet above the fuselage. The jet provides surveillance, target tracking and early warning of enemy actions.

Measurements: 152.9 feet long with a wingspan of 145.8 feet; rotodome: 30 feet in diameter, 6 feet thick

Speed: 360 mph

Ceiling: 29,000+ feet

Armament: None

Crew: Flight crew of four plus mission crew of 13-19 specialists

Fact: The E-3 can fly a mission profile about eight hours without refueling. 

Sources: Joint Base Charleston, Department of Defense, U.S. Coast Guard, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Airbus Helicopters.

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