I grew up on and around Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, WA (NASWI). At the time, it was the West Coast home of the Navy’s A-6 Intruders, and the only home of the EA-6B Prowler. Today, it’s still the hub of the Prowler community, and the new EA-18G Growler.
Just south of the base, near the bucolic town of Coupeville, which you may have seen in such movies as Practical Magic and The War of the Roses, lies Out Lying Field Coupeville. It’s a simple landing strip, not even a real airport.
Naval Aviators have to routinely land on carriers, day and night. And that’s a perishable skill. So before any aviator heads to the boat, he practices repeatedly ashore the specialized approach used aboard ship. And practices, and practices, and practices. The aviator will make at dozens of “touch and goes” in what is known as the “bounce pattern,” making the approach to touchdown, then immediately lifting off again to fly in a racetrack pattern, and repeat the process. Typically, four jets at a time can share the pattern.
Since a given airfield can only support a limited number of aircraft in the pattern at once, and other routine flights still need to launch and recover, most Naval Air Stations have an Out Lying Field (OLF) nearby dedicated to this bounce pattern. For NASWI, it’s OLF Coupeville.
NAS Whidbey opened in 1942, and its OLF opened in 1943. Since the early 1960s, NASWI has been one of the Navy’s Master Jet Bases.
Now, jets are noisy. Really. And the Navy isn’t blind to that fact. For decades, the road from the main highway to NASWI sported this sign.
It’s been replaced, but the tagline “The Sound of Freedom” still resonates with many on the island.
Noise complaints have been a fact of life for air station commanders since the first days of Naval Aviation. And in the jet age, they’re even more common. Mind you, when NASWI was established, Oak Harbor and Coupeville were hardly more than wide spots in the road.
But the scenic beauty of Whidbey Island, and the outstanding quality of life there has meant great numbers of well to do people have moved there to enjoy the attributes of island life.
Sadly, the things about solidly conservative small town life that make it so wonderful also tend to attract people from solidly liberal bastions such California and the Seattle area. People with a fair amount of money who are willing to pay to live in a very nice community.
And some of these folks are annoyed with the noise of the Prowlers and Growlers in the bounce pattern.
And so, they’ve decided to engage in that most All-American of sports- litigation in the federal courts.
Some Whidbey Island residents say Navy jets are so loud that they have to sleep with headphones on, and now they’re suing to get some peace and quiet.
The Navy often practices “touch and gos” at nearby outlying field runway, and everyone involved admits they can be rather loud.
Maryon Attwood lives in the area and said she has to wear ear protection headphones just to get to sleep. She said the noise is unbearable.
“They just keep going around and around,” she said.
When she and other neighbors asked the Navy to close the field, she said they got no response. The neighbors decided the best way to get the Navy’s attention was to file suit in federal court.
The lawsuit accuses the Navy of failing to conduct an environmental review before using the landing strip.
In response, the Navy is suspending touch and go exercises on the runway for the rest of the year. However, in a statement, Navy officials say “this decision will create operational impacts and is not considered to be sustainable for the long term.”
Neighbors fear that when January rolls around, the jets will take off day and night from nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey three to four times a week for as many as eight hours a day.
KOMO news used to be pretty decent, but this piece was severely one-sided. The only actual statement on camera was from the plaintiff.
Further, KOMO doesn’t mention that the county, by code, has mandated since 1992 that all homebuyers and renters sign an acknowledgement of the noise before the sale or rental is executed. Maryon Attwood, from what I understand, moved to Coupeville in 2008.
Ms. Attwood, to be sure, isn’t the only plaintiff suing. There’s also a fair number of people in the area that think just because they are unhappy with the noise, the noise should go away, never mind any legal documents they signed earlier, and never mind the costs involved to the Navy. Their snowflake specialness takes precedent.
And then there are those that may have more… pecuniary motives. The noise drives down property values on what might otherwise be some very pricey real estate. Should the suit succeed in shutting down OLF, owners in the area would see the value increase. And precisely because values are low there, there is a lot of undeveloped land in the immediate vicinity that would suddenly become plausibly developable. And worth far, far more than it is now.
Aside from the OLF and the Navy, the region in question has a long, long history of bitter litigation and public acrimony about development and land use rights.
Now, some of you live near airports, and are saying, well, the noise just isn’t that bad. But the thing is, modern airliners are so drastically quieter than their predecessors that we forget just how loud jets really can be. The Prowler and Growler don’t benefit from any of the noise abatement methods a civilian airliner can use. They are orders of magnitude louder than what you hear at a civilian airport. So I’ll grant that living next to OLF or NASWI can have its teethrattling moments. And a full bounce pattern is greatly annoying.
But the Navy has also long worked with the communities of Oak Harbor and Coupeville to minimize the disruption to the extent possible. There are restrictions on the numbers of consecutive days they use OLF, limits to how late at night they can fly, and they publish a schedule of operations well in advance.
And there are large numbers of people in the communities that are appalled by the lawsuit. And not just Navy families, but long time townies. Many recognize the operational needs of the Navy. And a lot more recognize that NASWI is the economic driver for the north end of Whidbey Island. The base was considered for closure under BRAC a few years ago, and when the county looked at what the outcome would be, they found themselves staring into an abyss.
But more and more, folks in the Coupeville area, and the communities to the south, see their main industry as tourism, and attracting wealthy homeowners, either retirees or commuters to the Seattle area. And for them, the thought of losing the base isn’t as daunting. I think that’s a flawed economic analysis, but I can see how they would make it.
This is a pretty long post to complain about NIMBY’s. Especially those NIMBY’s that move to an area with a known, existing facility, and then start to complain. I’m not a violent person, but I’d sure like to beat a few people with the cluebat.
I grew up there. I love the area. I’m heading there next week. And I’m frustrated at the stupid people that have been moving in and trying to turn it into the very places they fled.