With New York skies empty, the U.S. Air Force flew a tanker into LaGuardia airport

Apr 23, 2020

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There are almost no airplanes in the skies above New York City these days. With airline flights down by 90% from the time before the coronavirus pandemic, the familiar noise of jet engines is a rarity.

On normal days, the planes most New Yorkers see and hear are those landing at or taking off from LaGuardia, the closest airport to Manhattan, whose approach and departure routes often go over heavily populated areas of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan itself. But with COVID-19, there’s pretty much no one around. Stats on flight-tracking site FlightAware show that only 24 flights took off from LaGuardia on April 21 — compare that with the staggering 31,017 flights in and out of LGA throughout the month of January, according to data from the Port Authority, which runs the airport. JFK and Newark are also near-empty, with 70 and 71 flights respectively on the same date.

So the few pilots around can, to the extent permissible, take some scenic detours. That’s what the crew of a FedEx cargo jet did a few days ago, when they requested an unusual departure from Newark right over the middle of Manhattan — and reacted with a “That’s unbelievable!” over the radio while overflying the island.

But there’s someone else taking advantage of the empty airspace over the biggest city in the United States: military pilots. On Monday, April 20, New Yorkers were greeted by the extremely unusual sight of a giant, dark grey airplane with no windows or airline markings doing circles over the city, at the same low altitude of the more familiar commercial jets approaching LaGuardia.

Aviation geeks on Twitter were surprised and amazed. It was a KC-10 tanker and transport, the military version of the DC-10 passenger jet of 1970s vintage. This is an airplane usually found refueling fighters and bombers while they are in the air — what was it doing over New York City, even doing what looked like a touch-and-go on a LaGuardia runway?

Someone filmed it over Midtown Manhattan, noting that for many New Yorkers the sight of low-flying planes around skyscrapers evokes traumatic memories.

Our Executive Editorial Director Scott Mayerowitz, out for a socially distanced stroll, snapped it over Central Park.

(Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)


We asked the U.S. Air Force about it. Major Malinda Singleton emailed back from the Air Force Press Desk that the KC-10 had come from McGuire, a large airbase in New Jersey south of the city, and was on a routine training mission.

“A KC-10 from the 305th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, conducted a routine local training sortie originating from KWRI (McGuire) over to New York airspace and utilized the pre-coordinated services from KLGA (LaGuardia),” she wrote, using the four-letter airport codes familiar to pilots but not to most civilians.

“The KC-10 crews constantly practice at airfields throughout the Northeast, and depending on the training requirements of the crew, operations are conducted to maintain mission ready status,” the email added. Flying the famously challenging approaches to LGA is a good way to build and maintain airmanship skills, and with an amazing view from the flight deck to boot.

Normally, KC-10s are used for air-to-air refueling. They have been doing so for decades, as this photo taken over the Persian Gulf in 1999 shows.

Three F/A-18 "Hornets" From Strike Fighter Squadron Nine Four And An E/A-6B "Prowler" From Electronic Counter Measures Squadron One Three Five, Conduct Refueling Operations With An U.S. Air Force Kc-10 "Tanker" In The Skies Over The Persian Gulf March 9, 1999. Aircraft Are Conducting Missions In Support Of The United Nations No-Fly Zone Over Southern Iraq, Operation Southern Watch. Both Squadrons Are Operating From The Aircraft Carrier USS Carl Vinson Currently On A Regularly Scheduled Deployment In The Region. (U.S. Navy (Photo By U.S. Navy/Getty Images)
(Photo By U.S. Navy/Getty Images)


Sometimes they even do that over New York City, when there is an event that requires airspace protection with fighter jets that need to keep circling overhead without landing to refuel.

The Air Force didn’t say whether more NYC overflights by military planes would happen, but you can monitor flight-tracking sites to see for yourself. Military planes generally do not show up on commonly used flight trackers like Flightradar24 or FlightAware, but many of them can be found on a more specialized site, ADS-B Exchange. Just click on the letter U in the top right corner to filter out civilian flights.

Screenshot from ADS-B Exchange


Typically you’ll see a label indicating aircraft model, registration and call sign — the military equivalent of a commercial flight number. In the image above, for example, there’s a C-130 transport flying over Reading, Pennsylvania, using the call sign “Vader 04”. If you want to decrypt the aircraft model — what is a “BE20” anyway? — you can use the search function on Aviation Fanatic to find out; just search for “Aircraft ID.”

If you hear a strange airplane noise over your city, it might help explain what’s going on.

Featured image by Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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