Your Armed Forces Day Guide to Military Aircraft in Charleston Airspace | military compendium

NORTH CHARLESTON – Drive down the aptly named Aviation Avenue and other roads near Charleston Air Force Base and you’re sure to see familiar military aircraft.

But all over the Lowcountry, there are dozens of plane-spotting opportunities. And identifying some flying machines can sometimes be a bit difficult. With a little practice, most features will become easier to spot.

For Armed Forces Day, May 15, here is a curated list of 10 military jets, propeller planes and helicopters and their general characteristics to identify when you scan the sky:

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

C-17A Globemaster III

This large transport aircraft is parked at the base as part of the Air Force 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. There are thousands of arrivals and departures per year at Joint Base Charleston.

Measurements: 174 feet long with a wingspan of 169.8 feet

Speed: 518mph

Ceiling: 45,000 feet

Armament: Nothing

Crew: Three (two pilots and loadmaster)

Do: 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 / US Navy

P-8A Poseidon

This versatile patrol aircraft is used by the Navy primarily for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. It carries out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions around the world and participates in search and rescue operations.

Measurements: 129.6 feet long with a wingspan of 123.6 feet

Speed: 564mph

Ceiling: 41,000 feet

Armament: Missiles, torpedoes and sonobuoys

Crew: New

Do: It is 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 conducts aerial sprays over Joint Base Charleston. The unit is the only one of its kind in the Air Force. Senior Airman Dennis Sloan / US Air Force

C-130J Super Hercules

A tactical airlifter capable of a wide variety of missions, including aerial refueling, special operations, airlift, aerial spraying, 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 runways.

Measurements: 97.8 feet long with a wingspan of 132.6 feet

Speed: 417mph

Ceiling: 28,000 feet

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

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

Do: It is the aircraft of choice for the Air Force Reserve 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/US Navy

AV-8B Harrier II

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

Measurements: 46.3 feet long with a wingspan of 30.3 feet

Speed: 647mph

Ceiling: 38,000 feet

Armament: Cannons, rockets, missiles and bombs

Crew: One

Do: 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, vertical landing variant of the jet. The aircraft is with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501. Cpl. Jonah Lovy/US Marine Corps

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 is the newest multi-role stealth fighter deployed by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. It is designed to replace aging fleets of F-16s and several other aircraft, 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: A wide variety of weapons can be carried internally in stealth mode; ammunition payload is over 18,000 pounds

Crew: One

Do: Marine pilots are trained at 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 Joint National Guard Base McEntire in Hopkins takes off after taking fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker during routine aerial refueling training. Senior Staff Sgt. Kendra M. Owenby/US Air National Guard

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F-16 Fighting Falcon

A multirole fighter aircraft that has achieved success in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Its life was extended due to the delays of the F-35. International demand remains high for the multipurpose jet. The aircraft is flown by the SC Air National Guard.

Measurements: 49.4 feet long with a wingspan of 32.7 feet

Aiming: Lockheed Martin's F-16 site in South Carolina aims for big military contract

Speed: 1,500+ mph (Mach 2+)

Ceiling: 50,000+ feet

Armament: Guns, missiles and conventional ammunition

Crew: One or two

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

Navy F-18 Hornet

A Navy F/A-18 Hornet rolls into position for refueling by an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron Detachment 4 over the skies of Iraq. Staff Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/US 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 only move to the F-35 for transport.

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)

The Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration is set to take to the skies of Charleston in 2022

Ceiling: 50,000+ feet

Armament: Cannons, rockets, missiles, mines and bombs

Crew: One or two

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

Dolphin MH-65

A patrol and search and rescue helicopter operated from Coast Guard bases and cutters. While the helicopters seen in our area are based in Savannah, one is in service at the Charleston sector 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 pilots, two crew)

Do: Dolphins are widely used in hurricane rescue operations.

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

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

UH-60 Black Hawk

This helicopter can carry a fully equipped infantry squad of 11 in most weather conditions. SC Army National Guard flies the helicopter.

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

Speed: 183mph

Ceiling: 19,000 feet

Armament: Machine guns, missiles and rockets

Moncks Corner Black Hawk pilot returns the city flag after deployment to Afghanistan

Crew: Four (two pilots, two crew)

Do: Critical components are shielded and the airframe is designed to crash gradually to protect occupants.


Air Force Staff Sgt. Chase Shands of the 380th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron arranges an E-3 Sentry for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/US Air Force

Sentinel E-3 (AWACS)

The Airborne Warning and Control System jet is easily identifiable as 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: 360mph

Ceiling: 29,000+ feet

Armament: Nothing

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

Do: The E-3 can fly a mission profile of approximately eight hours without refueling.

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