A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

June 2009.

Not in My Backyard

The small city of Oak Harbor, Washington , is located on Whidbey Island, a short drive north of Seattle.   Similar to all the San Juan Islands, Whidbey is a relatively quiet, scenic, pastoral place populated by small farms, acreages and interesting little towns.   Ferry service is available on the south end while a bridge connects to the mainland on the north.   Anyone connected to aviation would recognize the name Whidbey Island because a naval air station operates there.

In the summer, the islands attract visitors and the curious drivers seeking a short getaway from the metropolitan areas of Seattle and Vancouver.  They soon discover that the quiet atmosphere is often shattered by the sound of military jets, specifically the EA-6B Prowler, arguably one of the loudest aircraft in the Navy’s collection working from the NAS at Oak Harbor.  There is a sign at the main airfield that said, “Pardon our noise, it’s the Sound of Freedom”.  Most residents in that area are navy employees so noise complaints are not common, however the sign was probably an attempt at justification aimed at all the tourists.

One night several years ago, while on a solo cycling tour of Whidbey, I stopped in a small, clean campground about ten miles from the main airbase.  Unaware that there was another airstrip through the trees adjacent to the camp, I settled into my tent for a much needed sleep.  At about two a.m., the fun started.  It turned out I was situated almost directly beneath the flight path of navy jets practicing their night carrier landings on a runway only a few hundred yards away.  The EA-6B is noisy from 5,000 feet altitude, but it’s downright scary as it comes blasting overhead at about 100 feet, with power on, in the dark, in unfamiliar (to me) surroundings.  The practice went on for the rest of the night.  Earlier I had wondered why no one else seemed to have discovered this little spot.   Now the answer was clear. 

Recently, I recalled that sleepless night while reading about a fellow who had his home situated in a spot similar to my campground.  He lives in a trailer park in Florida, adjacent to the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.  Seems he got tired of the jets overflying his trailer at low altitudes all night so he took some rather unorthodox actions of his own.  He obtained a high-powered, hand held spotlight (several million candlepower) and shined it into the cockpits of the jets as they approached.  Evidently it was bright enough to temporarily distract the pilots to the point where they cancelled their night landing practice. 

He’s in jail now, serving a year-long sentence for his attacks.  It makes me wonder about the quality of the pilots though.  Supposedly, they’re trained to fly missions while under fire from people who are shooting back with real bullets, not just flashlights. 

Anyway, this all goes back to the never-ending complaints from people who live near airports and want them shut down.  Most, like the guy with the flashlight, came after the airports were already there.  In fact ‘flashlight man’ had signed a disclosure when he moved his trailer to the property stating that he knew his location was close enough to a jet practice area that it would be impacted. 

I live on a small island.  We have a somewhat similar situation developing recently.  Although it doesn’t involve an airport, it is about attitudes of people who want to bring their lifestyle with them and force it on others wherever they go.  For us, it’s about transportation to our island.  One reason I moved here is because we need to take a ferry to get here.  There is water all around us, which affords a small feeling of isolation from the ‘outside world’.  We tend to be left alone by politicians and bureaucrats, even the police.  The big city issues like crime, development, pollution, overcrowding, heavy traffic and noise have little meaning over here.   It’s a peaceful, easy lifestyle a bit slower than on the mainland.  Now, there’s talk of building a bridge!  To some people, mostly the newer residents, it’s a great inconvenience to deal with a ferry schedule on their daily commute to work, or shopping, or whatever other reasons they go to the mainland for. 

 We hear of those who purchase a home near an airport then want it shut down because of the noise it creates.  These city people who purchase on an island then want a bridge link to the mainland are barking the same tune.  To them I say, “If you don’t like these realities, why did you move here in the first place?  If the noise from the airplanes or conforming to a ferry schedule becomes too inconvenient to live with, then move someplace where conditions are more acceptable to your lifestyle.”

Anyone reading this article, printed in an aviation publication, is already in agreement.  We’re preaching to the converted.  But there’s a reality out there that the politicians are listening to these complaints.  They’re putting operating restrictions on airports, shutting them down during certain hours, imposing noise abatement rules, curtailing certain activities like flight training and airshows, and even closing some completely.  This talk about a bridge to our island is increasing too.  There are surveys and studies going on leading us to believe that it could quite possibly become a reality someday. 

Some aspects of society and our cities should be changed.  But the reasons for the change need to be right too.  It seems to me that it’s wrong for someone to move himself into a situation that is working for those already there, then work to change it so it’s more convenient for him. 

Airports are a necessary reality.  But they don’t build them in a residential area or in the middle of a city.  They’re located out in open land, in fields far from existing development.  The people who work and live in close proximity come later, a predictable evolution.    That’s when the complaints start up.  We call them NIMBY’s.  How long can it be before the politicians feel there’s enough support for them to act against NIMBY’s?  Politically, that may not be a good move, but like many other issues, it would be morally correct and would make sense to me and anyone else who flies and supports airports.  

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