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Residents endure sound of freedom

The pain threshold for noise intensity is 125 decibels. Prowlers flying at 800 feet have been pegged at 120 decibels. For residents living near the flight paths of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s Ault Field and Outlying Field, that adds up to many sleepless nights in the past week.

While anyone who buys a house on north or central Whidbey Island is told of the noise zones, people living near both fields say the flights, and noise, has been far worse than normal lately. And it’s unpredictable.

Flight schedules used to be posted in the local newspapers, but that practice was ended with 9/11 due to increased security. Now residents have no way of knowing when the jets will start up, or how long the runs will last.

One long-time Dugualla Bay resident said the jet noise is “loud enough to peel the wallpaper off the walls.”

Adding to the noise-induced stress is that the jets are now flying long into the night, and early morning.

Jim and Inge Johnston moved to Dugualla Bay in April from Denver, and said they were told the Prowlers didn’t fly “very much.”

“Our neighbors say there is never this much noise,” Inge said.

Friday morning the pair sat on their deck overlooking the bay, the only sound the neighbor’s weed trimmer. The Prowlers had just finished their morning runs.

The retired couple loves the area, and said it would take a lot of noise to make them leave. “We bought the view and the house came with it,” Inge said.

They are not loving the jet noise this week, but say they understand the jet crews need to train.

Jim Johnston is a retired Navy captain himself, and recognizes some of the noises the jets are making — and the difference between pilots.

“There are ‘hot dogs’ and there are regular guys,” he said.

“You can hear the difference in how they fly,” Inge added.

The couple wondered by the jets couldn’t fly over the water instead of right over their house.

“I feel there are ways they can make it less onerous,” Jim said.

While many of their neighbors didn’t want to go on record as criticizing the Navy, for fear of seeming “unpatriotic,” Jim felt the base command would be interested in feedback from the local residents.

“There’s probably no one on the island more interested in maintaining a good relationship with the community than the (base) captain,” Jim said. “I know they are trying to manage it as best they can.”

Retired pilot notes noise

Retired A-6 “Intruder” pilot and Gulf War veteran Peter Hunt also lives in Dugualla Heights, and said in the 11 years he has lived there he has seen ebbs and flows in flight and noise patterns. He has also seen ebbs and flows in the discipline of flying a correct landing pattern.

“A correct pattern is not inconsistent with training,” he said. “It can be done.”

He has noticed the flights lately seem more “strung out” than normal, which may account for some of the additional noise residents have been experiencing. As for the late night / early morning runs, Hunt said that can’t be avoided because the crews need solid darkness to practice true night flying conditions.

When he ran the night vision goggle training program at the base he said they would often fly between 1 and 4 a.m.

“Unfortunately, that’s just the way things work up here where it gets dark so late,” he said.

In this post-war period even islanders who have watch-dogged the Navy flights in the past are cutting the jets some slack.

Bill Skubi has been an active member of WISE, Whidbey Islanders for a Sound Environment, a group which worked to get the Navy to reduce flight noise in the late 1980s. He said at that time there were more flights than at present, and the community worked out an informal agreement with the Navy that the training flights would go no later than 10:30 p.m., would not last more than two days in a row, and that the jets would not fly on weekends.

“When doing work over residential areas, any and all the Navy can do to abate (noise) will help,” Skubi said. “The people in the area appreciate the years the Navy has observed this agreement.”

He felt the Navy had been observing those guidelines pretty well, until lately.

Navy response

So are the flight lines really noisier and busier than usual?

Busier yes, noisier probably not, according to Navy sources.

Six Prowler units and one P-3 unit have returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom in the last month, so it follows that more planes on base means more activity in the air, said Kim Martin, base public affairs officer.

Martin said nights flights from the base have been standard for more than 45 years. Night combat missions and aircraft carrier landings require that aircrews train and become proficient in these crucial areas.

While Ault Field has a policy of flying from 7:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, more daylight means longer hours.

“Pilots fly after midnight during the summer months because it doesn’t get dark until late at night and we still have the same night training requirements during the summer as we have the rest of the year,” Martin said. “It is not uncommon for . . . training operations at Ault Field to occur until 2 a.m. or later on several occasions during the summer months.”

As far as publishing the schedule in advance, Martin said in addition to increased security most flights are not necessarily scheduled far enough in advance to allow publication, and there may be other contingencies that affect the schedule, such as weather or maintenance issues.

Whidbey islanders living under the flight path would do well to take a suggestion from pilot Hunt, “Given their workload, I’m willing to cut them some slack.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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