For now, Navy cancels search for outlying landing field

By Dianna Cahn The Virginian-Pilot ©

The Navy has canceled its long and controversial search for a new landing field to be used by fighter pilots from Oceana Naval Air Station – at least for now.

In a decision that was welcomed by the communities that could have been affected, the Navy announced Tuesday that it was abandoning a draft environmental study of five potential landing practice sites in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

“It felt like an early Christmas present from the Navy,” said Linda Warren, a resident of Gates County, N.C., who would have lost her home on the family’s 100-year-old farm if the site there had been selected. “It came real close to taking a lot of people’s homes around here.”

The Navy said it needs first to examine where on the East Coast its newest generation of fighter jets will be based before it can look at what training requirements are needed. It will be years until the Navy’s version of the Joint Strike Fighter is operational, and the environmental impact study for where to base those jets has been delayed from 2014 to 2017, said Ted Brown, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command.

Any study done today would be outdated by then, Brown said.

Controversy over situating an outlying landing field has been brewing for more than a decade.

F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets from Oceana practice their aircraft carrier landings at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake. But development and light pollution around Fentress means that pilots can’t conduct practice landings that exactly simulate carrier landings, and the Navy began looking for an alternative location.

After plans to locate the landing field in Washington County, N.C., ran into legal challenges, the Navy began studying five other sites in 2008 – three in Virginia, in Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties, and two in North Carolina, in Camden and Gates counties.

Opposition was strong and swift, with activist groups cropping up in all five counties. Local governments passed resolutions against the plans and hired lawyers or lobbyists to oppose them. Residents objected to the chasing of people from their homes and the possible environmental damage and noise pollution that an outlying landing field, or OLF, would bring.

They argued that they would get the disruptions but none of the perks of a Navy installation in their community.

“I felt it was fundamentally unfair for a small community to shoulder the most unpleasant part of the Navy’s presence in the community,” said Tony Clark, chairman of the Southampton County No-OLF group.

For years, the Navy insisted that it needed a landing field to relieve pressure on Fentress and keep Oceana a viable base for Virginia Beach. But Oceana has fewer jets than it once had, now that the Navy is pivoting west toward Asia, and the Navy recently moved some of its flight practices to Wallops Island, leaving added capacity at Fentress, said Bob Matthias, an assistant city manager in Virginia Beach.

“It seems they have adequate capacity for field carrier and landing practice now,” Matthias said. “We think that Oceana will be a major contributor for Virginia Beach and the commonwealth and the region for many years to come.”

He and others also doubted that in the current economic climate of belt-tightening, the Navy would revive its efforts to invest a half-billion dollars or more in a landing field.

Brown said the Navy spent $4.5 million studying the five locations before it suspended its analysis in 2011. At the time, the Navy said it wanted to study where to base the Joint Strike Fighter squadrons. Tuesday’s decision formalized the suspension into a cancellation.

Among those to welcome the decision was Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who said she’s been working with her constituents since the day she took office to fight the OLF.

“I will continue to make the case in Congress that the Navy must not build an OLF in northeastern North Carolina,” she said.

The Navy hasn’t ruled out the possibility that a landing field might be needed in the future, but Brown noted that a new round of environmental analysis would be required. That left opponents glad about the decision, but wary.

“We are encouraged, but we are going to remain vigilant…. Steadfastly opposed to the possibility of a future siting of an OLF here in Camden County,” said Mike Renshaw, the North Carolina county’s manager.

Linda Warren said it has been difficult for people to make plans when they did not know whether they would lose their homes. She said one neighbor was going to build a house but never did, while another died not knowing what would happen to his seventh-generation farm.

“We are pretty excited to have this news,” she said. “But what we’d really like is for the Navy to take us off their list altogether.”

Dianna Cahn, 757-222-5846,

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