This article has been updated.
The San Antonio airfield where a group of migrants departed for Martha’s Vineyard this week is a 105-year-old facility that today is used by both the military and civilians.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit on Wednesday for flying the group of roughly 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants to the popular and affluent summer vacation destination in Massachusetts, a political stunt aimed at making a statement about sanctuary cities.
On Thursday, a 27-year-old Venezuelan migrant told the San Antonio Report he was paid $200 in cash to recruit people from outside San Antonio’s migrant resource center. The migrant, who gave his name only as Emmanuel, provided contact information for about 10 fellow migrants to a woman he knew as Perla, and said he understood that the cash came from an “anonymous benefactor.”
As the details of the two flights emerged this week, immediate questions followed about how they were chartered — and took off — from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland on Wednesday.
Kelly Field, formerly Kelly Air Field Base, is one of fewer than two dozen airports owned and operated by the Department of Defense that are usable by private citizens.
The former air base on the site was closed in 1995, when its runway and adjoining buildings became the Kelly Field Annex airport (renamed in 2018 to simply Kelly Field). The remainder of the former base became Port San Antonio, which has transformed into a large-scale industrial and aerospace hub for businesses like Boeing.
Although the airport is often said to be a part of Port San Antonio, including on the Port’s website, it is still owned by the federal government and operated by Lackland Air Force Base, part of the joint base.
The 502nd Air Base Wing directs air traffic from the control tower for both military and civilian flights, public information officer Robert Strain said, though it does not manage flight plans or handle manifests for private flights.
All private flights at the airport are serviced by the base’s operator, Atlantic Aviation. The Plano-based company, which has more than a hundred locations across North America, goes beyond refueling and can help with travel arrangements, according to its website. It’s unclear what role it played in the flights. The company said in a statement that “as with every flight from public, private or government sectors, we maintain no knowledge of an individual flight’s purpose, nor do we intervene with any flight’s operation.”
FAA records show that both flights were chartered by Ultimate Air Shuttle, a luxury private jet company based out of Ohio that normally caters to corporate executives and sports teams.
Martha’s Vineyard is a regular destination for the company, though the jets used appear to have been brought to San Antonio only recently: One normally makes daily trips between Atlantic City and Long Island, according to recent flights shown on FlightRadar.com. The other makes regular flights all over the eastern United States, and had flown from Chattanooga in Tennessee the day before.
Ultimate Jet’s flight numbers 11 and 59 left Kelly Field at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. The planes landed at Bob Sikes Airport in Florida’s panhandle shortly before 10 a.m., before leaving again via separate paths to reach Martha’s Vineyard, according to FlightRadar data.
Flight 59 stopped at the Charlotte/Douglas Airport in North Carolina shortly before 1 p.m., and Flight 11 stopped at the Spartanburg Downtown Airport in South Carolina.
When taking credit for the flights, Florida Gov. DeSantis said, “We are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.”
Beyond their short stop on the Bob Sikes Airport runway, it remains unclear what connection the airplanes — or the migrants recruited in San Antonio to be used for the stunt — have to Florida.