Neighbors of the Navy’s practice airstrip just southeast of Coupeville already are used to hearing jets roaring overhead as pilots practice touch-and-go landings meant to simulate landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier.
But the Navy’s recent request for public comment on an environmental assessment of the relocation of EA-18G Growler jets to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station drew the ire of some of those neighbors who worry the noise could become worse or more frequent.
The announcement had appeared in the public notice section of the Whidbey News-Times and the South Whidbey Record on July 28, Aug. 4, and Aug. 11, but many Central Whidbey residents said that by the time they heard about the notice, the public comment period was about to end.
State law requires that the Navy place this type of notice in local newspapers as a way of keeping people informed about any changes that might affect them. The public comment period announced in the notice was July 27 through Aug. 13.
Georgia Gardner of Coupeville was one of about 50 people who showed up at the Island County commissioners’ meeting on Monday to ask the county to write a letter to the Navy to ask for an extension of the comment period.
She said that the current noise level is already “unlivable.”
Gardner said she moved to Coupeville in 1954 when the outlying field was not in use.
“Every step of the way we have been reassured by the Navy,” Gardner said in an interview after the meeting. “We were told that the last lot of planes would be quieter. They weren’t. We were told that the flights would cease at 11 p.m. They don’t.”
“We try to be supportive of the Navy,” she said. “But we have been told a lot of things that didn’t happen.”
According to NAS Whidbey spokeswoman Kimberly Martin, the transition to EA-18G Growlers will not result in more-frequent flight practice at the airstrip.
“The Expeditionary squadrons practice up in Oak Harbor and are not flying in Coupeville,” she said.
Local resident Paula Spina, who owns the Crockett Farm, rounded up some neighbors to complain to the county commissioners about the jet noise and public notice process.
At the commissioners’ meeting, she described the current noise level at the airstrip as intolerable, and said it is “destroying our lives.”
“In one hour of calls, you can see the public response,” Spina said to the commissioners. “Help us slow this process down.”
The roar of Navy jets is a familiar sound of summer nights in otherwise-quiet Central Whidbey. The sounds of chirping birds and sputtering lawn mowers is drowned out by the deafening sound of the jets as they are maneuvered in a continuous loop, briefly touching the strip at the Outlying Field (OLF) before zooming upward for another round.
Homes near the airstrip are outfitted with extra insulation to help cut the noise, and local residents are accustomed to pausing their conversations briefly as the loud jets thunder past.
Each time a home near the airstrip changes hands, the new owner must sign a document acknowledging that they are aware the Navy jets at times will be noisy.
The pilots typically practice in the evening, operating their jets as late as midnight so they are able to master the maneuver of approaching the deck of an aircraft carrier at night in the middle of a dark ocean.
The air station’s commanding officer also may extend the hours due to operational requirements, frequently as the result of weather or the timing of the moonrise, Martin said.
Even though many local residents are accustomed to the noise, the Navy still fields frequent complaints when the jets are flying.
On average, the base has received 39 calls per month this past year, with more calls coming in during the summer months due to the Northwest’s long summer days that reduce available training hours, Martin said.
According to the 300-page draft environmental assessment, “the purpose of the proposed action is to provide deployable land-based Expeditionary electronic attack community assets that meet Department of Defense requirements.”
The EA-18G growler is intended for Expeditionary squadrons, Martin said. Because they are land-based jets and not carrier-based, pilots don’t need to practice touch-and-goes at OLF.
The environmental assessment includes an evaluation of maintaining the status quo, the proposed action, and three alternatives.
In the proposed action, the three Expeditionary squadrons already at the air station would transition from the older EA-6B prowler to the newer EA-18G growler, a reserve Expeditionary squadron from Maryland would potentially relocate to Whidbey, up to 11 Growlers would be added to the Fleet Replacement Squadron, and some facilities at NAS Whidbey’s Ault Field would be modified.
Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola voted ito ask the Navy for an extension of the comment period so local residents can feel that their concerns have been heard.
Commissioner Kelly Emerson abstained from the vote, saying she already had contacted her own constituents about the environmental assessment through her electronic newsletter.
The Navy has placed a copy of the draft environmental assessment at the Coupeville Library, 788 N.W. Alexander St.. The comment period has been extended to Friday, Aug. 31. Send comments to Whdb_naswi_pao@navy.mil.