Navy releases preferred plan for Growler practice

It calls for decrease in training, increase in practice at OLF Coupeville

The majority of EA-18G Growler field carrier landing practices on Whidbey Island will occur at an airfield in rural Coupeville surrounded by farmland and homes under a “preferred alternative” identified by the Navy this week.

The amount of practice necessary for Growler pilots to remain prepared to land on aircraft carriers decreased by 30 percent under the scenario, but it still means a four-fold increase over current activity at Outlying Field Coupeville.

About 12,000 Growler touch-and-go passes, or 23,700 “operations,” would occur annually at Outlying Field Coupeville under the alternative, the Navy reported. An operation is defined as a takeoff or landing, so each pass accounts for two operations.

Currently, about 6,000 operations occur annually at OLF Coupeville.

Navy officials announced Monday that the preferred alternative plan for Growler practice has been identified, though the final Environmental Impact Statement on Growler activity will not be completed until later this summer or this fall. The secretary of the Navy or his representative will make the final decision about force structure and training distribution.

Growlers are variants of the F/A-18F Super Hornet equipped to conduct electronic warfare.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she’s thankful that the Navy informed the community about the preferred alternative decision early on; she said the clarity and transparency gives the community a chance to prepare.

“It’s not a surprise but it will be very impactful,” she said of the increase in Growler practice.

Leaders of a couple of Central Whidbey groups formed in opposition to the noise from Growler practice were not happy with the announcement and feel Navy officials didn’t take into account the concerns of the community.

“Clearly, the Navy has lost touch with the people that they serve,” said Maryon Attwood of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER. “Their linear chain-of-command thinking demonstrates the Navy’s lack of originality or willingness to find a livable solution for communities they continually say they appreciate as good neighbors. Their preferred option reflects the attitude of the bully they have become – not of the sympathetic neighbor they espouse to be.”

Coupeville Community Allies asserts that Growler practice will have a “profound and negative effect” on the economy of Central Whidbey.

“If this proposal comes to pass, we would have to sacrifice our economy for our safety – a terrible bargain to have to make in any community,” according to a statement from Coupeville Community Allies.

The preferred alternative establishes two new expeditionary squadrons at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and adds two aircraft to squadrons that operate off aircraft carriers. That’s an addition of 36 Growlers at NAS Whidbey; currently there are 82 of the aircraft.

The Navy reports that the reduction from original projections in the overall amount of landing practice is due to a reduction in the number of pilots and a change in the training requirement due to “precision landing mode,” technology also known as MAGIC CARPET that assists pilots with landing.

With about 80 percent of the landing practice directed at OLF Coupeville, the rest will occur at NAS Whidbey’s Ault Field base on North Whidbey. Navy officials point out that Ault Field will support four times the number of aircraft operations as compared to OLF Coupeville; there’s a lot of aircraft activity going on at Ault Field besides Growler landing practice.

The preferred alternative would bring 630 Navy personnel and 860 family members to the Island and Skagit county region, according to Lisa Padgett, environmental engineer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

NAS Whidbey spokesman Mike Welding points out that the population increase will be offset by the decommissioning of VQ-1. Officials project that the base population will increase from 8,400 people to 8,600, he said.

If the alternative is adopted, the transition will begin in 2019 and be completed in 2022, according to Fleet Forces Public Affairs Officer Ted Brown.

Navy officials say that the preferred alternative places most of the landing practice at OLF Coupeville because the airfield provides the most realistic training. The pattern at OLF Coupeville best replicates the patterns of landing on an aircraft carrier “building and reinforcing the correct habit patterns and muscle memory,” the Navy said in a statement.

“OLF Coupeville sits on a 200-foot ridge surrounded by flat terrain, similar to the aircraft carrier operating on the water,” the Navy statement reads. “The low cultural lighting around Coupeville and the ability to completely darken the field also closely resembles at-sea conditions from the pilots’ perspective.”

The Navy received well over 4,000 comments from the public after the draft EIS was published. After the final EIS is released, the public will have another chance to comment during a period of at least 30 days.