Too Much of a Good Thing
The United States Navy has one essential, noble mission and that is to keep the American people safe. The Navy has discharged this duty faithfully and courageously for over two hundred years. In order to maintain their readiness and fulfill this sacred obligation, the Navy must by necessity constantly conduct training of its personnel. Whidbey Island has proudly played a key role in facilitating this training by being willing to accept a balance between “the sound of freedom” associated with flight training and the normal, everyday lives of its citizens. This has been possible because of the rule of reason, i.e., the jet noise has been at noticeable but reasonable levels.
In recent years, however, the Navy has begun to stretch the balanced nature of this unwritten agreement between itself and the citizens. What had been a mutually beneficial relationship has more and more become one-sided, with the Navy taking on a more and more imperious attitude, seemingly forgetting their role is to serve rather than dictate. Even as they fulfilled their mission to protect and defend abroad, they have begun to endanger and harm the citizenry here at home. This is a glaring contradiction. In order to justify this reckless endangerment, top Navy officials have even resorted to outright lies. For example:
1. Navy helicopters have for some years been flying dangerously close to bluff-top homes along Admiralty Inlet, hugging the bluffs when they could have flown more straight routes across the water. They flew at eye level and so close one could have hit them with a rock. They were, for lack of a better term, hot-dogging. This severely vibrated the homes (and their double pane window seals) and the bluff itself (not a good thing – remember Ledgewood). A sudden side wind could have sent them into the trees and the homes themselves. In response to complaints, the Commandant at the time lied in writing to home owners and to U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, claiming that they needed to fly so close so that in an emergency they could auto-rotate to the beach below. An experienced Navy helicopter pilot who once flew a U.S. President from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to the courtyard of the Vatican exposed this lie, saying that in an emergency in which auto-rotation is required, the pilot needs as much altitude and maneuvering room as possible, not the low-altitude, narrow confines of a bluff and a beach. The Navy has further claimed that the extreme vibration of the bluff does not endanger the bluff stability in any way. There is no agency, state or Federal, that can possibly make this claim, since they have no idea of the internal structure of the bluff at any given point. Such a claim callously defies common sense and the tenuous nature of Whidbey’s bluffs.
2. Navy jets have dumped fuel over Smith and Minor Islands west of Whidbey. The islands themselves are a National Wildlife Refuge, and the surrounding waters are one of seven Washington State Aquatic Reserves because they include the largest kelp beds in the Salish Sea, absolutely key to the sea life in our marine environment. The Navy has said this fuel dumping is only done in emergency situations, but homeowners along West Beach Road have observed this behavior time and time again, and Navy pilots, in unguarded moments among friends, have admitted it is not done solely in emergencies. Imagine the impact of jet fuel on the sea life in the kelp beds, the nurseries of our waters.
3. In advance of Growler aircraft, the Navy indicated they would be louder but not so loud as to pose a health threat. In addition, they indicated there would be fewer flights. Both these statements have proved untrue. Noise measurements have indicated dangerous, even damaging noise levels. The number of flights, the hours during which flights are conducted, and even the range of flight paths, all have greatly expanded, not decreased. We now have a situation in which citizens’ sleep is disrupted, children’s classes are interrupted, and people’s hearing is threatened by the very organization sworn to serve and protect. What sense does it make to serve so admirably abroad and harm the citizenry at home?
I would like all 3 of these issues to be addressed in full by the EIS.
The bottom line is that had the balance of benefit been maintained, the people of Whidbey would have been willing to continue putting up with some inconvenience and unpleasantness for the common good as they have for decades. The people of Whidbey have not outgrown the Navy. The Navy has severely upped the ante and outgrown Whidbey. What is remarkable is that the Navy would even consider putting us in harm’s way given their essential mission to protect us. This shows a serious loss of perspective at the top.
It is crucial that the Navy be able to conduct practice jet flights to maintain their readiness and standard of excellence, but they must do so, like physicians, while doing no harm. Their operations have escalated and become incompatible with large population centers. They need to remember their core mission, admit they have intensified operations to an unacceptable and dangerous level, and seek a much more isolated location for their training and practice flights.
William A. Viertel