Lt. Col. (ret.) Brian Schill said he was flying a mission for the 171st Air National Guard Refueling Wing several years ago when he received a message he'll never forget.
His aircraft was approaching thunderstorms as he and his crew cruised a loop of sky that spans much of Western Pennsylvania. He requested permission from the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center to stay in the air.
"They said 'Steel, do whatever you want,'" Schill said with a laugh. "I'll never forget that. They said there's no one else up there. That never used to be the case."
Schill, who retired five years ago as a pilot for the 171st Refueling Wing in Hopewell, is now the ambassador for the Wings Over Pittsburgh air show, hosted by the 911th Air Force Reserve Airlift Wing in Moon.
In the years since the 9/11 attacks, aircraft from both Moon-area air wings have been a more frequent sight in the skies, he said. Airmen at the bases have been able to fly more missions over the Pittsburgh region because fewer commercial planes are in the air.
As commercial aviation across the country has slowed since the 2001 attacks, local military has increased the number of missions flown from the bases.
"People in Moon see these flights everyday now," Schill said. "We're able to run these touch-and-go missions more often because there's less competition for that air space.
"It used to be more difficult to get up in the air," he said.
The 171st flies its Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers over the Pittsburgh region multiple times a week to deliver fuel to other military aircraft. The planes, manned by a four-member crew, hold 30,000 gallons of fuel. The 911th, meanwhile, specializes in transporting military personnel.
Both air wings share a runway in Moon with Pittsburgh International Airport.
"All the time. you're seeing them in the sky," Schill said of the aircraft.
Schill said that increased visibility also translates through the Wings Over Pittsburgh air show. Now in its 10th year, the two-day air show draws more than 250,000 people and serves as an open house for the 911th base, which is usually closed to the public.
"They really like getting to show off the base and what they do," said Schill of Moon-area military personnel. "We're a part of the community. It's good for people to see what we do."