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Base changes, seems stable

Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce members heard of changes at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station during Capt. Stephen Black’s annual state of the base message Thursday.

The base’s commanding officer said every change, from a new air control tower, high tech base gates and a new youth center, could be traced to directives from the chief of naval operations.

In recent years, the Navy, and every branch of the military, has been ordered to find cost savings by reorganizing people and reducing materiel costs.

“It’s cost effective readiness,” Black said. “Not readiness at any cost.”

The Navy is reducing staff levels as it recapitalizes money to fund new ships and airplanes. In fact, Black pointed out that by 2012, every aircraft currently based at Whidbey will be obsolete. The EA-18G will replace the EA-6B Prowler, which today is considered a “go-no-go aircraft” for coalition planes flying over hostile territory. In other words, if Prowlers can’t fly, no other planes can either.

P3 Orions, flown by patrol squadrons and EP-3E Aries flown by Whidbey’s reconnaissance squadron, VQ-1, will also command new aircraft. While crews flying these planes gather less media attention than Prowlers, Black said their missions are just as crucial as those of the radar-jamming jets.

“Everything done by people forward deployed from NAS Whidbey has made a huge difference in what the nation has done (in the war on terror),” Black said.

“I’m inspired by what I see when NAS Whidbey units deploy.”

The first aircraft changes will come in April 2005 when Search and Rescue switches from H-3’s, the helicopter that picked up Mercury astronauts after splashdown, to H-60’s, an up-to-date advanced helicopter for high-altitude as well as water rescues.

In addition, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft could become frequent sights above Whidbey’s horizons.

Area supports base jobs

NAS Whidbey boosts Island County’s economy by supporting more than 10,000 jobs. Black said Oak Harbor and North Whidbey support the base with anti-encroachment laws, noise disclosure ordinances, noise-reducing building codes as well as building height and obstruction criteria.

In addition to local, county and state legislation, Black said support for the base comes from the community.

“It’s a special place to live and work,” he said.

Quality of life also makes Whidbey Island an excellent location for a base, he said.

“You can’t live here and not love Whidbey Island,” Black said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

Black

notes rumors

Recent construction at the base may strengthen its position during realignment and closure considerations. BRAC officials have stressed that new construction won’t be a factor in deciding a base’s fate, but many people think it would be difficult for government officials to ignore work at bases. At Whidbey, new aircraft control tower, new refueling platform along with updates and upgrades to buildings and equipment bolster the base’s profile.

As the threat of base realignment and closure hovers over most bases in the U.S., Black didn’t offer certainties about Whidbey’s future. But he did hint at assurances.

Today, EA-6B Prowlers take hours of time to refuel. The engines must be turned off before a fuel truck comes near. A new refueling station, or “hotpit,” will give crews minutes, not hours, to refuel. From fewer airplanes, more missions can be extracted. And the EA-18G, the replacement to the EA-6B, isn’t certain to be stationed here. Basing the planes at Whidbey involves replacing, not introducing, equipment, Black said. That means less-involved tests — environmental assessment instead of complex environmental impact statements, — he said. Swapping the EA-18G with the Prowler would mean little noise difference, he added.

The Navy is discussing where to station the EA-18G, Black said. The environmental assessment of Whidbey Island is part of discussions. “It’s under scrutiny,” Black said.

A decision on the Prowler replacement is expected by the fall.

He also addressed an issue less known than the Prowler replacement – the possibility of a squadron relocating to Whidbey Island. Rumors concerning VQ-2, a reconnaissance squadron based in Rota, Spain, moving to Whidbey have circulated for years. Black simply mentioned the rumor’s resurfacing without confirming the tale. Until discussions with the host country as well as talks with commander, fleet, air Mediterranean and U.S. Navy Europe are conducted, no one would have word on the almost 500-person squadron making a transoceanic, transcontinental move. Black said the idea of VQ-2 moving to Whidbey hasn’t been discounted as a mere rumor.

“We have studied the situation,” he said. “And Whidbey could handle it.”

Sharing airfield not possible

Black did dash one economic development hope. City council members, county commissioners and writers of letters to the editor had expressed hopes of using Coupeville’s Outlying Field or Oak Harbor’s Ault Field to resurrect commercial air service to Whidbey Island.

Black said such a “joint use” option isn’t possible. The Navy requires that joint use not create negative operational factors on flight training and no-notice training which Whidbey squadrons regularly see. The Navy must also gain savings and other benefits from such an operation. And local governments must be able to obtain services only through the military. In solving Whidbey Island’s lack of air service, joint use with the Navy doesn’t apply. As with every military installation, heightened security would make base access unavailable to certain travelers and people who didn’t have necessary credentials and were trying to make their way on the base could jam base gates. In a final statement on the situation, Black said joint use is a negative during BRAC considerations.

Base projects in the works

Projects at the base include completing new gates at Ault Field. The hospital gate is the final entrance being fitted with serpentine lanes and barriers to prevent a vehicle from gate-crashing. Next year, the Maui gate on the Seaplane Base will receive the same treatment. A new firefighting system will eliminate clouds of thick, black smoke coiling above the air station. Instead of burning old aviation fuel, propane will fuel fires in simulated airplane crashes. Plumes of steam will replace heavy smoke. Next month, Prowlers will return to Outlying Field when runway resurfacing wraps up.

Black also said air shows could return. For years, these show drew thousands of people from all over the Pacific Northwest to Whidbey. Budget cuts forced cancellation. In 2002, the air show returned to the base. Budget restructuring again forced the show off the calendar.

“I’m an optimist,” Black said. “I think we’ll find funding for the shows. We haven’t seen an end to air shows on Whidbey Island.”

The base has seen constant change since its establishment in the early 1940’s. From PBY Catalina Seaplanes to EA-6B engines roaring, change stays the same at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

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