Craig Ulmer

Low-Flying Military Plane over Livermore

2021-03-28 planes

There was a lot of talk on local social media this week about a large military plane that flew over Livermore at a very low altitude. The town is already wound up about larger planes flying into Livermore because there's an expansion plan being discussed that would allow private charter 737s to land at the airport. Seeing a massive, loud military plane flying low over town made everyone wonder if that's what daily life is going to be like in the next few years.

There was a lot of speculation about what was going on with this flight. Some people thought it was emergency vaccine supplies being dropped off. Others claimed it was a military salute for a Lt. Col. in Pleasanton who was just awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the end it turned out to be a C-17 Globemaster doing a practice landing approach at our municipal airport (see Brodie Brazil's video of the approach).

Tracking SOUND87

I went to my PiAware node and pulled the day's data to see what military flights took place on Wednesday. I found AE07E0 was active around the 4pm time period people were talking about. Interestingly, the flight used the call sign SOUND87, which made me wonder if this was some kind of sound test for the airport extension (I doubt it now- it seems like a routine test). As the below plots show, the plane flew in from the east, passed the airport, and made a sharp turn north. Zooming in on the east side of town, I noticed it flew right over LLNL at about 2K ft, just a block away from their $3.5B national ignition facility (NIF). I'd thought they had a no-fly zone over them, but that seems to only be for drones. Here is the raw data for the flight.

Debunking the Salute Theory

The idea that the military would dive bomb a city to show its appreciation of a soldier bothered me, so I went to FlightRadar24 and pulled up the data for the whole flight. As seen below, they took off from Vegas, circled the bay area, and then dropped in on Livermore. After that, they flew north to Concord and did a similar practice approach at Concord's municipal airport (CCR) before landing at Travis AFB. Given that they didn't fly anywhere near Pleasanton and they made a second drop somewhere else, I'd guess this has nothing to do with the Lt. Col's award.

Questioning the Airport Expansion

One thing this flight really highlights is that Livermore people will notice larger planes flying to our airport. While the C-17 is much bigger and louder than the 737s the expansion is targeting, it made a lot of people realize that the airport approach really does stretch all the way across town, starting at the $3.5B big science experiment at the lab. I hope enough people stand up to the FAA and prevent larger planes from being able to land there.