Navy makes its case at Surry forum

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 1, 2008

SURRY—The Navy had a chance to sell its idea of an outlying landing field Thursday to one of the communities on its list of potential locations.

Invited by the Surry County Board of Supervisors to attend a special community OLF forum at L.P. Jackson Elementary School, two Navy officials talked to a polite but seemingly unreceptive crowd of about 200.

Representatives from the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command had the floor for the first half of the meeting and made a PowerPoint presentation in which they described the need for such a facility, the process that must take place before it could come to fruition and some of its potential benefits and detriments.

Citizens listened quietly, took notes and asked a few questions at the end of the presentation, displaying little of the emotion that defines much of the opposition to the issue and that Holmes had said he hoped to avoid during Thursday’s meeting.

Commander Richard G. Catoire, OLF project officer, told those attending that the Navy is involved in the OLF process now, because it needs another facility where pilots can train to land jets and propeller aircraft on aircraft carriers.

Fentress Auxiliary Landing Field, located in Chesapeake, is the service’s main site for training pilots of Oceana-based F/A-18 Super Hornets and other aircraft. But, he said, that airfield, located less than 10 miles from the Virginia Beach base, cannot handle the increased training capacity necessary to keep the Navy on a war-ready footing.

In addition to the capacity problem, he said, encroaching development and the lights it brings have rendered Fentress a less-than-ideal choice for pilots who need to practice the dangerous art of landing jets on an aircraft carrier at night.

&uot;Pilots landing on an aircraft carrier at night experience more stress than they would if they were going into combat,&uot; Catoire said. &uot;There is no room for error out there on that ship.&uot;

The OLF would give those pilots another place to practice, especially during &uot;surge operations,&uot; when the Navy is preparing one or more carriers to set out to sea, he said.

The new facility could be expected to provide an average of two or three 45-minute training periods per day, he said. Each training period would accommodate four or five aircraft making eight to 10 landings each, usually after sunset.

Noise levels would be high when the planes were flying, he conceded, describing with several charts the expected noise impacts within the 30,000-acre space that would be subject to residential and development restrictions.

&uot;It’s loud; we understand that,&uot; Catoire said, noting that even people who live outside the 30,000-acre zone could expect some noise during practice periods.

Another Navy representative, Mark Anthony, OLF project director, promised residents that the Navy would fly a jet in the landing pattern one night during the environmental review to give them an idea of just how loud it would be. Also, the environmental study the Navy prepares will include an analysis of expected noise levels at various locations throughout the county.

The economic impact of an OLF also could be large, Catoire said. There would be 506-631 construction jobs created, and the project would result in $80 million in direct costs, with a regional impact of about $100 million, he said.

Operating the facility would require 62 civilian positions, with a total payroll of about $4.2 million per year, he said. Those positions would include firefighters, secretaries, airfield management and refuelers. Additionally, the Navy would contract for between $100,000 and $150,000 worth of facility repair and maintenance services, he said.

Catoire also tried to set minds at ease regarding the potential personal negative impacts of the facility. Some residents would have to give up their property for the airfield. Others in the buffer zone would be required to sign restrictive easements to the Navy that would limit their use of the property in the future.

Both types of landowners would be well compensated, Catoire said, noting that the Navy would begin with fair market value when trying to negotiate compensation. Those who were moved out of the OLF area would get relocation costs, as well. And those who farm area around the core airfield likely would be able to continue to do so, he said. &uot;Farming and forestry are compatible land use activities.&uot;

Catoire closed his presentation by answering some frequently asked questions about the OLF and the Navy’s selection process. Among those answers were the following:

n Fort Pickett was considered for the OLF location, but was rejected for several reasons, chiefly because of its distance from the Oceana squadrons that would be training there. The added cost in fuel and aircraft wear-and-tear would be prohibitive, he said.

n Bald eagles, ospreys, deer and even horses are known to live and thrive under the flight path at Oceana Naval Air Station, leading the Navy to conclude that noise effects on livestock and native species should be minimal.

n Retired aircraft carriers are not viable training solutions, because the point of training on a land-based airstrip is to get pilots used to hitting their marks every single time before sending them out to land on a relatively tiny landing strip bobbing in the ocean. &uot;If there’s a slight misstep (landing on a carrier), it’s a bad day for everyone,&uot; Catoire said.

n Schoolchildren should not be negatively affected by the OLF, because the sites aren’t expected to be located near schools and most of the training is scheduled for nighttime, when schools are not in session.

Both Catoire and Anthony also assured one questioner that the Navy would not poison any animals to remove them from the core, fenced airfield area.

They promised another that residents would have access to better maps at a planned &uot;public scoping session&uot; from 4 to 9 p.m. May 7 at Surry County High School.

The Navy plans in April to publish its Notice of Intent to begin the environmental study process that is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Scoping meetings for the other affected counties are expected prior to Surry’s May 7 session, but no earlier than 15 days after that publication.

Catoire said those meetings would give landowners a chance to ask Navy representatives specific questions about how the OLF would affect their properties.