What WERE those fighter aircraft that flew over the beach?

F-111 with its wings swept back.

F-111 with its wings swept back.

At midday Monday, I was in the backyard of my parents’ beach house, about to pull the jon boat out of the lake and secure it before driving a couple of my grandchildren back to Columbia. The house is a couple of blocks from the beach at Surfside, on a small man-made pond.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of high-performance jet aircraft, and looked up. As they flashed by between a couple of pine trees, I saw two fighters for a split second. I tried to identify the planes, but could not.

Later, my wife mentioned having seen a freakishly large plane go over, which I assumed was a C-17 from Charleston.

Later, hearing that there was a beach flyover in connection with celebrations of the Fourth, I looked for news stories to learn about what I had seen. What I read wasn’t helpful:

Beachgoers at a packed Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island were in perfect position take in the annual Salute from the Shore on Monday, July 4, 2016. Two F-16 fighter jets and a C-17 transport plane from Charleston Air Force Base roared over Coligny around 1:45 p.m., with onlookers applauding and waving American flags, saluting the country’s real heroes.

OK, what I saw were not F-16s. Maybe I hallucinated, but I could have sworn that they had variable-sweep wings, and I actually saw the wings on one of the planes sweeping back toward a parallel position with the stabilizers in that split-second.

There are no current serving military aircraft with variable-sweep wings. It that’s what I saw, that makes them either F-14 Tomcats or F-111s. They also seemed to have single tails rather than double, which would count out the F-14. (I’m not certain about the tails. Maybe the angle was bad. I saw them from 3 o’clock low, at a distance of about half a mile. One was yawing slightly, which is why I could see what the wings were doing — if I really saw that.)

The website for the event wasn’t helpful, either:

The bad news is that unfortunately, only three of the eight vintage planes are able to fly today due to mechanical issues…

However, the good news is that the one of the biggest transport planes in the American military will fly today! Charleston AFB and Joint Base Charleston will fly a C-17 on the SC coast in support of the 169th Fighter Wing F-16s and the vintage planes. This year’s Salute promises to the the best yet….

OK, so if “vintage planes” were involved, they could have been 14s or 111s. But what were they?

In the information age, it should be able to answer such a simple question, when thousands of people saw the things.

But the info just doesn’t seem to be available.

I know it’s a small thing, but stuff like this bugs me. Partly because, as a longtime newspaper editor, I’ve had to deal too much with most journalists’ combined ignorance and lack of interest in military hardware and a number of other topics (firearms, religion, science) that tend to hit news media in a numb spot.

If you assume people are interested in these “vintage planes,” whether you are the organizer or a reporter covering the event, why wouldn’t you tell people what they were?

F-14 Tomcat

F-14 Tomcat

16 thoughts on “What WERE those fighter aircraft that flew over the beach?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Nope. They were more fighterish. My very first thought was that they were F-14s. But I discounted that because they’re obsolete. It was only when I learned they were supposed to be “vintage” that I think that MAYBE I just couldn’t see the second tail, and so that’s they were…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The B-1B is more elegant and delicate-looking than what I saw.

        These had more of a muscle-car look. If the B-1 was a Corvette, these would have been Camaros…

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Years ago, I used to watch A-10s over that same beach. They were so slow, they sometimes seemed almost to be hovering, especially when they made turns and just HUNG there.

    This was very different. They went by so fast, after I saw them at a distance of about half a mile and then moved to be able to see them again, they were miles away.

    Reminded me of watching F-4s streak over our house when we lived about a mile from McConnell AFB in Wichita (the Kansas National Guard few those until January 1987)… THAT was dramatic. One of my daughters was born there, and “plane” was one of her first words, because that’s what my wife would say to her to explain that startling noise…

  2. Bob Amundson

    I miss being near Naval Air Stations for a variety of reasons, one being the ocean was often nearby (excluding NAS Fallon). Like you, I notice when I hear the trust of a military jet engine.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That would fit the bill, but I’m suspecting they were Tomcats and I just wasn’t in a good position to see the twin tails.

      I was sort of hoping someone involved with the event would see this post on Twitter or Facebook and just TELL us, but no such luck so far…

      1. Burl Burlingame

        The only folks still flying Tomcats is Iran. More likely would be Tornados on joint maneuvers.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, Bryan talked to a guy — Andy Folsom — who was in charge of this event, and he shared this original listing of the planes that were supposed to fly, although in the end there were problems and only three did:


    NONE of those could possibly have been what I saw.

    So maybe I saw the two F-16s that reports said were also in the air (here’s a photo of them), and just imagined I saw variable-sweep wings on one. I only saw them for less than a second, flashing between a couple of trees.

    If I’d known this was going to happen and when, I’d have been down on the beach with my binoculars and an unobstructed view. As it was, I had no warning. I heard them, looked up, saw them and they were gone…

  4. Bob Kaehler

    I don’t think you are crazy. I saw an F14 swept back wings straight vertical rudders, dual engine (GE-F404As w/F110-EMSP power, it was the 1st thing I heard too) . It Made two turns that I saw & it wasn’t a F16 or B1b. Then looked up last in service was long ago… ghost returned from the 80s? You’re dangerious Maverick

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