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Exiting commander reflects on Whidbey accomplishments

After three and a half years at the stick, Capt. Jay Johnston turned over leadership of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station this week.

Command was passed to Capt. Michael K. Nortier, a native of Sodus, N.Y., during a formal ceremony on base Friday.

Nortier reports to the airbase from U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Operations Directorate.

Johnston sat down for an in-person interview Tuesday morning and shared his thoughts on the past three years.

A change of command ceremony story will appear in Wednesday’s Whidbey News-Times.

Johnston said one of the biggest challenges and greatest achievements of his tenure surrounds the planned arrival of four squadrons of P-8A Poseidons, beginning in 2015.

“I’ll call that an accomplishment although I won’t be around to see it because that’s been two years of hard math, hard engineering and hard work,” Johnston said.

Based on the 737-800 airframe, the P-8A jets are the long awaited replacement for the P-3 Orion turbo-prop, the Navy’s venerable but antiquated sub-hunter and surveillance aircraft.

Plans to station 24 of the new jets on Whidbey Island came into question in early 2011 when capital cost concerns threatened to bump NAS Whidbey to third in line to receive the aircraft.

Many were worried that the Navy would reevaluate its plans and Oak Harbor would be nixed altogether.

Johnston and his team put their heads together and drafted a plan to modify existing hangars, rather than build new ones, to accommodate the arriving jets.

“That got everyone’s attention and, along with the national defense strategy’s pivot to the Pacific, that made Whidbey the most attractive base to put the P-8A,” Johnston said.

Johnston also worked on improving communication with Central Whidbey residents over noise concerns at Outlying Field Coupeville, though finding a solution is challenging.

Despite claims that citizen complaints fell on deaf ears or that Navy officials don’t understand the severity of the issue, Johnston said that’s not the case.

“I’ve been flying here since 1996; I get it,” Johnston said.

The Navy has taken strides to be better neighbors, by printing flight schedules, meeting with elected officials and tailoring “operations to have the least impact,” but there isn’t much else that can be done, he said.

Some voiced hopes that the Navy might purchase new land and train elsewhere, but the realities of military spending today might as well make that an impossibility, Johnston said.

“There’s no money to develop additional training airspaces or runways … so it’s up to us to be the best stewards of what we have,” he said. “That means using Coupeville and getting along with Coupeville folks the best we can.”

Although he didn’t mention them at the time, Johnston has several other accomplishments to be proud of.

During his tenure, Navy Region Northwest selected NAS Whidbey as the best naval installation in the Northwest twice during the past three years, and won three Secretary of the Navy Platinum Energy Awards.

Cheryl Johnston, his wife, is a teacher and the couple’s three sons attended Oak Harbor schools – two were on the Wildcats football team when it won the state title in 2006.

“They’ve really contributed to what makes this a better place to live,” said former Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik.

Johnston’s next assignment will take him to Washington, D.C. where he will work as the Operations Director at Naval Installations Command headquarters.

 

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