On Wednesday, May 31, mid-afternoon, an EA-18G “Growler” jet operating out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was conducting aircraft carrier landing practice at the Outlying Field (OLF) just outside of Coupeville when it developed engine trouble creating an emergency situation.
A resident waiting to turn onto Route 20 just north of the OLF runway heard a loud and alarming metal-on-metal noise and looked up to see a Growler that appeared to be struggling in flight as it headed north from the OLF. Directly in its path were the County’s fuel storage tanks for its bus transit center.
Further beyond, a West Beach Road area resident observed smoke billowing from the plane’s engine. Fortunately the pilot was able to get the jet back to Ault Field in Oak Harbor (NASWI) without crashing.
Coupeville resident Lori Taylor explained that when the jet began its practice session it was the loudest jet she had ever experienced over the town and phoned the base about the noise level.
Upon learning of the incident Ms. Taylor emailed the Navy asking, “Why would a Growler in trouble fly over the town, risking the two schools, the hospital and the County seat? Why did a pilot’s emergency procedures bring the plane over the most densely populated area in Central Whidbey“?
NASWI Community Planning & Liaison Officer, Brian Tyhuis, responded: “Upon experiencing the malfunction the crew immediately implemented emergency safety of flight procedures and flew directly back to Ault Field…in adherence to established procedures to maximize safety for the crew and local communities.” His response did little to allay concerns.
As Sound Defense Alliance board member Maryon Attwood noted, “Everyone is thankful a tragic mishap was avoided, but it does raise a serious question about the suitability of the OLF for landing practice.” Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve (COER) has previously revealed that the OLF runway when wet, as is often the case, is too short for an emergency landing without the jet going off the end of the runway.
Had the OLF runway met contemporary length requirements, the imperiled Growler pilot would have been able to land right there rather than put the town of Coupeville at risk, and the pilot would not then have had to fly 20 more miles further to land at Ault Field.
Yet still another problem, a portion of State Route 20 loops into the OLF’s Primary Surface (a protected area surrounding the runway), and the northern portion of the Clear Zone (extended protection area) is bisected by two local roads. Roads in those areas/zones violate Navy requirements.
If that isn’t bad enough, Navy bird-strike avoidance guidelines stipulate that routine flight paths are to avoid, by nearly 2 miles, areas where birds concentrate, especially where aircraft flight elevations are less than 1000 feet above the ground. In spite of that, the downwind leg of the Growler practice loop at the OLF takes the jet at about 600 feet above ground directly over Crockett Lake and marsh, a major waterfowl sanctuary where geese, swans, pelicans, blue herons, and eagles could easily bring a jet down if ingested by an engine. [Google Image Result]
There is no current waiver for any of these cogent well-established safety requisites. As COER board member Michael Monson decried, “The Navy can write itself a waiver for this non-compliant runway, but there is no waiver, and even if there was, it wouldn’t change the risks to the community or justify the continued use of this highly inappropriate runway.”
The COER Board agrees and expects that the Navy will fully inform the community about this incident. The Board also hopes the Navy will re-evaluate the efficacy of its OLF-related emergency protocols and forthrightly consider whether acceptable community safety at the OLF is realistic and achievable in light of Navy policy indicating otherwise.