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Special Olympics Airlift Brings Athletes to RDU for Busiest Day Ever

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RDU INTERNATIONAL — Friday was one of the busiest days ever atRDU International. Thousands of athletes arrived for theSpecial Olympics World Summer Games.

The first planes carrying Team USA touched down around 8:20 a.m. They were followed almost immediately by more planes. Throughout the day, more than 275 Cessna planes landed, carrying members of Team USA in the fourth annualCessna Citation Special Olympics Airlift. The effort is being called the largest peacetime airlift in the world.

The athletes were greeted on the tarmac as soon as the planes landed -- every two to three minutes for between nine and 10 hours. The average number of takeoffs and landings at RDU is 850; Friday, there was more than 1,400.

"If you consider the fact that we've got 520 commercial flights in and out, plus our normal private air traffic, and then add the Citation [Airlift] traffic on top of it, the skies above RDU will be very busy today," says airport spokesman Mike Blanton.

As a result, air traffic was being tightly controlled. "The FAA has gone to a reservations-only system today, which means that unless other pilots wanting to fly in and out of RDU have a reservation, they will not be allowed to land today," Blanton says.

A specialFAAtrailer was set up to coordinate with the control tower, and make sure everything ran smoothly.

By looking at a computer screen, FAA officials were able to "see how many airplanes we have inbound to the airport, how many airplanes we have scheduled to go outbound to the airport, and we can adjust the flow of those airplanes," says Preston Williams, an air traffic control manager.

More than 250 companiesfrom 40 states have donated planes, manpower and fuel to bring in Team USA. Team members are coming from30 statesand many of them had never even been on an airplane before.

From the airport, Special Olympics athletes headed to dozens of host towns, where they are getting ready for the games, which start Saturday with Opening Ceremonies.

You can watch the Opening Ceremonies live on WRAL-TV, the official television station of the World Games. WRAL OnLine will also offer a live Webcast of the event, beginning at 7 p.m.

The World Games end July 4.