Visiting Cherry Point – The Windshield Tour

While you are visiting Cherry Point near Havelock, let’s say you mustered up a group and mobilized them in such an orderly way as to make it through the main gate. Visitors might instinctively expect to see hangars, towers, barracks, commissaries and mess halls. But a whole lot of things on this tour might not be so easily anticipated, such as riding stables, two marinas, beautiful Cherry Point real estate with a lush golf course, swimming and tennis facilities, a theater and a bowling alley.

You will see all these things on a drive-by basis on the “windshield tour.” Scout troops, church groups and extended families are the typical tourists that Corporal Lisa Strickland conducts through the base. She is with the Public Affairs Office and prefers to have advance notice from groups that want a tour, if for no other reason than to requisition a vehicle large enough to accommodate the group.

“You must have a decal to come through that gate,” she said. “Any kind of visitor would have to go through the building up front called “Pass and ID,” show a drivers license, registration, proof of insurance and a sponsor if you are not military.” Civilians wishing to attend a golf tournament or memorial service could go on the base unescorted and without a sponsor, but have to do a lot of explaining and might improve their odds a bit by calling ahead.

Just inside the main gate is a Fleet Readiness Center, or FRC. In this facility, rotary aircraft are overhauled, helicopters like CH-46 and the HH-46 (the “H” stands for hospital), better known as search and rescue (SAR) helicopters. “They are what we call Pedro, and we also deal with CH-53s, the largest military helicopters,” explains Strickland.

Aircraft brought in from every branch of the military are serviced in this facility. “They pretty much break them down literally to wire and metal and build them back up, replace any parts, rebuild any parts,” she said. “There are about 3,600 civilians that work in FRC East and about 40 Marines, which is very different from any other place on base. The rest are all Marines and a few secretaries.”

All told, the Cherry Point Air Station employs about 9,000 active service Marines. “We do have (Navy) sailors here. A lot of them work at the clinic as hospital men, doctors, whatever their titles are. We have corpsmen with our rescue helicopters and those are Navy. There are chaplains here, also Navy, and we have some boatsmen at the boat docks which are Navy,” she said.

Aircraft of every description also are found here. Harrier squadrons, also known by a variety of numbers and letters but, generally, as the AV-8A, are comprised of fixed-wing jets that take off vertically, straight up like a helicopter, and also land the same way. Pilots accustomed to flying other jets have to log a whole lot of flight hours to adjust to the Harrier. “They have to have something like 300 flight hours to become a true Harrier pilot, which is a lot of hours,” she said.

In the fixed-wing category are Harriers, Prowlers, and the C-130. The helicopter collection includes the CH-46 and CH-53. “We have Hueys, we have Cobras,” she said. These can be photographed at a bit of a distance, prior to yet another gate and a sternly-worded sign that warns that no photos may be taken past a certain point approaching the towers and the airstrip.

Strickland salutes the guard and drives onto the tarmac. At the center of a lot of activity stands a 142-foot tower overlooking a complex maze of runways that accommodate, on a normal day, the take-offs and landings of about 300 aircraft. She points out three orange-and-gray Pedros and explains that these are no longer used for military operations.

“They work closely with the Coast Guard. A month ago a wife called and said her husband had been out on a shrimp boat and didn’t come home. The Coast Guard went out looking for him, but on the water they couldn’t get into certain smaller areas, and they couldn’t find where the husband was. So they called over here to Pedro,” she said.

The rest was the sort of thing you see these days on reality TV shows. “They flew out and they could see from the sky some areas the Coast Guard ships couldn’t get to. And they found the gentleman’s shrimp boat and he’d had a heart attack on the boat. They dropped their rescue swimmer down and he got on the boat and got him and pulled him up to safety. They took him to the hospital and he ended up being okay,” she said. The Pedro team has won various awards for this type of dedicated service to the seafaring community.

She points out a P-19 truck driving along the edge of the airstrip, with “Crash Fire Rescue” written across its side. Instead of the traditional fire-engine red, it is the color of a yellow highlighter pen. It parks at what is known as “the hot spot” and digs in for what Strickland says will be a two-hour shift.

“They’re on the side road of the duty runway any time the airfield is open, so in case of an emergency they can get to it right away. And they have other trucks right on the airfield, a whole crew of about 25 men that man that area 365 days a year.”

The air traffic control center doesn’t merely deal with arrivals and departures at Cherry Point – many of these being touch-and-go exercises that are a big part of pilot training programs – it also pitches in to help out with flights coming and going at several local airports. As a point of fact, the airports at New Bern, Greenville and Kinston were all former Cherry Point airstrips before they became airports.

Large fixed-wing cargo-transport aircraft loiter outside two immense hangars, a C-130 and a CH-53. “They are called the hammerheads,” she said. A huge sign on one hangar warns “No Smoking Within 50 Feet” and, at what can be presumed to be the 51-foot mark, a plume of smoke goes up from six or eight young men wearing olive green and lounging on park benches.

The air station serves as a secondary emergency landing strip for the space shuttle flights out of Florida. As the shuttle flies up the East Coast, an eight-minute period is allotted so that, if anything should happen, it could land at Cherry Point on an emergency basis.

“There is a handful of guys who go down to NASA every year and train to know how to handle emergency situations,” she said. “Like hatches, how to get into them, how to get people out. And our tower guys are trained how to communicate with them and of course we are ready when we know they are going to be taking off, and have more people on call.”

When she gives family tours, Strickland is likely to field a very specific question like, “Where is the RQ-2B?” She has learned these planes can become personal, practically members of the family, and almost certainly someone in the family has flown or worked on some aircraft they would like to visit again. “Maybe they were here, or their grandfather or dad has been here, and they want to see where they lived, the barracks they stayed in.”