Poseidon adventure begins in 2012

Air station will need fewer people

The Navy plans to replace the three P-3C Orion squadrons stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station with four squadrons of P-8A Poseidon jets, beginning no later than 2012, under the preferred alternative identified in the recently-released draft of the environmental impact statement.

The alternative would mean a 318-person drop of Navy personnel on the base and a loss to the economy of $28.8 million a year. On the other hand, it would require significant construction on the base, including the building of a new hangar, that would temporarily create an estimated 1,990 jobs and inject $410 million into the local economy.

The six other alternatives identified in the document, including a no-action proposal, would place from three to seven squadrons at NAS Whidbey, which translates to 18 to 42 aircraft.

Residents can read and comment on the draft online at www.mmaeis.com or attend a public hearing from 4:30 to 9 p.m., Wednesday, March 26, at the Oak Harbor School District boardroom, 350 S. Oak Harbor St. A copy of the document is also at the Oak Harbor Public Library.

The P-3C, known as the Orion, is a turboprop aircraft that has been in service since 1969 and has already served far beyond the service life originally envisioned. It was designed as a long-range, anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft, but the Orion’s mission expanded in the 1990s to include surveillance of both sea and land. Its capabilities allow views of battle spaces to be instantaneously conveyed to ground troops.

Yet the usefulness of the aircraft is coming to an end.

“The years of high utilization rates have resulted in metal fatigue that has made further extending the life of the existing P-3C aircraft cost-prohibitive,” the draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, states.

The plan is to begin transitioning from Orions to P-8A Poseidon Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft in 2012. The Poseidon is a militarized version of Boeing’s 737 commercial aircraft. It is designed to execute, with increased capabilities, the missions currently performed by the Orions. The P-8As are supposed to be more reliable and require less maintenance infrastructure and a smaller force.

“Fewer military personnel per P-8A MMA squadron are required than per P-3C squadron,” the draft states, “because the number of crew per aircraft would be less and because contractor support personnel would be used to maintain and service the aircraft, rather than military personnel. Contractor support personnel would provide basic maintenance, preventive maintenance, inspections, servicing/replacement of various aircraft components, and specialized repair of inoperative components.”

Fewer kids in schools

Under the preferred alternative, the base would lose a net 318 personnel. The EIS estimates that will result in 676 fewer dependents. Overall, that’s a loss of 1.2 percent of Island County’s population in 2010.

Perhaps significantly, the change will result in an estimated 123 fewer students, mostly from the Oak Harbor school district, which is already struggling with sagging enrollment numbers.

The draft states that the alternative would cost 435 jobs and mean a loss of $28.8 million a year to the economy.

The loss of personnel because of the conversion to Poseidons would occur just as the base loses a total of 1,106 personnel from the replacement of EA-6B Prowlers squadrons with EA-18G Growler squadrons, according to the EIS on the Growlers.

On the positive side, the preferred alternative would require extensive construction on the base, including a new aircraft hangar, an expanded ramp area, training facilities with parking, an operational storage facility, and a magazine storage facility.

The estimated $127 million in construction costs would have a multiplied economic impact of $274 million, for a total of one-time $401 million in economic impacts. The projects would support 1,900 new jobs temporarily.

Other effects of the preferred alternative would be minor, the EIS states.

There would be a 10 percent reduction in the number of airfield operations and no change in the existing type of flight operations or flight tracks. The training and deployment cycles will be the same.

The Poseidon jets will be only slightly louder than the Orions.

“While the two aircraft have different noise characteristics,” the draft states, “the actual increase in noise would range from 1 dB to 2 dB for the P-8A MMA, depending on the aircraft flight operation.”

In addition, the Poseidon will create less air pollution. No other significant changes are expected.

“Negligible impacts on wildlife or marine mammals are anticipated and, pending results from ongoing cultural surveys, no impacts on architectural or archaeological resources are anticipated,” the EIS states.