Oak Harbor officials travel to assure future of P-3 Orions

The PC Orions have long been a mainstay at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, but local officials are concerned about rumors they may be leaving.  - U.S. Navy photo
The PC Orions have long been a mainstay at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, but local officials are concerned about rumors they may be leaving.
— image credit: U.S. Navy photo

Rumors that the P-3 Orion patrol squadrons along with several thousand jobs will taken way from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station give new impetus to an annual spring travel ritual undertaken by Oak Harbor officials.

Oak Harbor representatives will travel to Washington D.C. again in March to lobby for the continued health and longevity of the air station which is the backbone of the island’s economy.

The trek is an annual event that began after the 1991 scare when plans were announced to close the airbase, commissioned in 1942. The community, along with members of the state’s congressional delegation, was able to successfully lobby for its preservation by flying back east and making the case in person.

It’s a tradition that’s continued for nearly two decades, according Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik. Without exception, the city’s reigning mayor has made the trek every year to argue on the base’s behalf, and 2011 will be no different.

“This is a 19-year effort,” Slowik said.

With an employee roster of about 10,000, the Navy is by far the largest employer on Whidbey Island and is the greatest economic influence in the county. It’s one of the reasons Oak Harbor is able to support large big-box businesses such as Walmart and Home Depot.

Typically, the annual trips to the Pentagon involve discussions about future community partnership, such as base growth and development, zoning issues and shared utilities. But this year may be special, as Slowik will address rumors that the Navy is planning on relocating its complement of P-3C Orions.

The four P-3 squadrons stationed at the air base represent about 2,600 jobs. Slowik said Monday he’s heard no indication that the rumors are true but that the loss of so many jobs warrants enough concern to bring up the issue at the Pentagon.

“These rumors will be a big thing we’ll discuss,” Slowik said.

Second District Congressman Rick Larsen, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said he’s also heard the P-3 rumor, along with several others. One of the more outlandish suggests that the base is once again facing closure, but Larsen is adamant that it’s a complete fiction.

“NAS Whidbey is not closing now or anytime,” he said. “I don’t need the Navy to tell me that.”

He could not confirm or deny the fate of the P-3s, however. The rumors are likely stemming from a recent Navy “efficiency initiative” that seeks to identify $100 billion in savings over five years. The only things he’s heard is that Whidbey EP-3 squadrons VQ-1 and VQ-2 may merge, resulting in the loss of about 220 jobs.

“I can’t tell you if the rumors are true or not,” Larsen said. “I can tell you that they are rumors.”

Kimberly Martin, base public information officer, could not confirm or deny the rumors either, saying that it’s too soon to know what may result from the initiative. She said it would be March before base officials know anything concrete.

“It’s not appropriate to speculate because everything is up in the air,” Martin said.

While it’s possible that things could change, the base is still operating under a decision that outlines the replacement of the aging fleet of turbo-prop P-3s with four squadrons of P-8A Poseidon jets, she said. That transition is expected to wrap up by 2020.

Martin declined to comment on the merging of VQ-1 and VQ-2 and the possible loss of jobs.

Slowik said his trip to the Pentagon will occur sometime in March. Accompanying the mayor will be city councilmen Jim Palmer and Danny Paggao. It’s only been in the past few years that security at the Pentagon has loosened to the point where members of the council are also allowed to go. Following the trip this spring, all but one will have made the visit.

The cost per person is about $2,700, or about $8,100 for all three. But it’s a small price to pay when you consider what the base means to the city’s economy, Slowik said.

Larsen will not be personally attending the meetings at the Pentagon with Oak Harbor elected officials, but he praised their efforts as an important part of making sure Navy brass understand just how large a role the base plays in the community.

He also pledged his continued support of the base and its interests on Whidbey.

“I will continue to do everything in my power to make sure the P-3s and the Growlers continue to call NAS Whidbey home,” Larsen said.

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