Navy’s study to look at more than just noise at Outlying Field

A F-18 takes off from Outlying Field Coupeville, the site of much debate over jet noise and the environmental impact. The Navy, which operates the practice field for aircraft carrier takeoffs and landings, is preparing an environmental impact statement, the scope of which is yet to be defined.  - Janis Reid / The Record
A F-18 takes off from Outlying Field Coupeville, the site of much debate over jet noise and the environmental impact. The Navy, which operates the practice field for aircraft carrier takeoffs and landings, is preparing an environmental impact statement, the scope of which is yet to be defined.
— image credit: Janis Reid / The Record

While the scope of the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement is still being determined, project managers said the study will be “comprehensive,” responsive to public feedback and look at more than just jet noise.

While the Navy maintains that EIS plans have been in the works for some time, a Coupeville-based citizen group believes a lawsuit they filed against the Navy in July is responsible both for the EIS and the Navy’s decision to both suspend touch-and-go operations at OLF, according to a statement from the group.

They are calling for a complete closure of OLF, claiming that the outlying runway is unsafe.

Lisa Padgett, U.S. Fleet Forces Command project manager for the EIS, said not only will the study be looking at noise, but also air quality, safety, the habitats of migratory birds and other factors.

“All the potential environmental effects,” Padgett said.

Padgett said they have already begun an airspace and airfield analysis in preparation for the public forums to be held in December.

Three open houses are scheduled as follows: 4-8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3 at Coupeville High School; 4-8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4 at Oak Harbor High School and 4-8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5 at Anacortes Middle School.

Ted Brown, the Navy’s Installations and Environmental public affairs officer, said the EIS process under the National Environmental Protection Act is a “very regimented” schedule with public input opportunities available throughout.

“Public input is very important to the process,” Brown said.

An informational website will be made available to the public approximately three weeks in advance of the open houses, Padgett said.

Once public comment is gathered, the Navy will determine the necessary scope of the EIS, Padgett said. They will then determine all the required training associated with the base, and conduct a comprehensive noise analysis.

Once a draft EIS is completed, including all the above information, another round of public comment will be gathered and the Navy will again address concerns.

Brown said when squadron or base facility changes are ordered, an Environmental Assessment, or EA, is routine. Once completed, officials determine whether or not the EA warrants the next step, an EIS. After an EA performed in 2005, the Navy determined that an EIS was not necessary, Padgett said.

An additional EA was performed in 2012, and this time, the Navy determined an EIS was necessary.

“In December, we heard about the potential for the Navy to procure two additional squadrons of the EA-18G expeditionary aircraft,” Padgett said. “As the budget matured, it became more of a reality and in May we received the tasking (for the EIS).”

Two expeditionary, or land-based, Growler squadrons will be joining the base along with two individual Growler aircraft assigned to the base for a total of 13 additional aircraft.

Navy representatives including Padgett have stressed that pilots flying in expeditionary Growler squadrons do not require ongoing Field Carrier Landing Practice, FCLP, or touch-and-goes, because they are land-based squadrons.

The expeditionary pilots are required to get qualified once as part of their initial training syllabus. However, they are not required to re-qualify touch-and-goes with each deployment like the fleet-based squadrons.

“As discussed, all Navy electronic attack squadrons, or VAQ, pilots must complete carrier qualification during their initial VAQ training,” Brown said. “That is the one time that an expeditionary VAQ pilot will perform FCLPs. By adding two additional expeditionary squadrons, we can expect a slight increase in pilot training requirements. Therefore, there will be a corresponding slight increase in number of pilots conducting initial training and requiring FCLP. The draft EIS will quantify the increase in FCLP operations.”

Brown said the VAQ community comprises both the older EA-6B and the newer EA-18G aircraft, and they expect the transition to the EA-18G to be complete in 2016 based on current fiscal budget projections.

Currently, Brown said, there are nine fleet VAQ squadrons at NAS Whidbey, three expeditionary VAQ squadrons (land-based), one reserve expeditionary VAQ squadron (land-based, moved from Andrews to Whidbey in July) and one VAQ training squadron.

In addition to the electronic attack, or VAQ, squadron, the Navy is currently transitioning from the older P-3C to the new P-8A, which is based on the Boeing 737. Under a 2008 Record of Decision, the Navy would home-base four P-8A squadrons at NAS Whidbey Island. The Navy is currently studying home-basing either six or seven P-8A squadrons at NAS Whidbey Island.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen announced in May that this increase will translate to and increase from 24 to 49 P-8A aircraft coming to NAS Whidbey.

Brown said that the Navy is definitely looking at this possibility, but the EIS will determine the final outcome.

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