Good, bad news in OLF suspension

The Virginian-Pilot ©

For 13 years, off and on, the Navy has considered building a new airfield in this region where fighter pilots could practice their landings. The idea caused considerable angst among landowners and prompted protests and lawsuits in counties in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina before the Navy put its study on hold in early 2011.

On Tuesday, the Navy canceled its search for a landing site, saying it will be at least 2017 before it knows where the next generation of jets will be based. That means the Navy doesn’t know where, or whether, another landing field will be needed.

The announcement was cause for celebration in Gates and Camden counties in North Carolina and in Surry, Southampton and Sussex counties in Virginia, all identified in 2008 as possible sites for the practice field. Residents, many of whom own property passed down over generations, worried that ear-splitting jets would erode their quality of life.

But the decision means continued uncertainty for Hampton Roads, already bracing for the Pentagon’s pivot to Southeast Asia and the concentration of more military forces on the West Coast.

With the delay until at least 2017 on where to base the Joint Strike Fighter, the successor to the F/A-18 Hornet, it only made sense to cancel the study for an outlying landing field. The need to relieve congestion at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake has been somewhat abated, anyway.

For the past decade, pilots often went to Florida to train because Fentress was so crowded, and development around it had made simulating carrier landings at night nearly impossible. The worry for Hampton Roads: If no other practice field were found, Oceana Naval Air Station could close, which would send the East Coast master jet base to Florida and take the planes and carriers – and much of Hampton Roads’ economy – with it.

But this year, the Navy moved some of its flight practices to NASA’s facility at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore, leaving added capacity at Fentress.

As the Pentagon navigates sequestration and the wind-down of two wars, a practice field would seem low on its list of priorities.

But Tuesday’s announcement – along with this year’s Washington budget battles – should drive home for Hampton Roads the need to invest in and cultivate other industries, reduce its dependence on the military and cushion itself from the Pentagon’s shifting resources.

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